Monday, September 16, 2019

Grand, fiction by Preston Lang

The stranger asked if he could do a little work in the field for something to eat and a place to stay. Dinner wasn’t much—thin soup and the last of the bread. But the stranger ate hungrily, and when Ida showed him a clean blanket and his spot near the stove, he closed his eyes and said a quiet prayer.

Ed and Ida woke up before dawn, but the stranger was already gone. The blanket was rolled up neatly, and there was a little something sticking out of the end.

“Ida, this is a thousand-dollar bill.”

“What do we do with it?”

Ed knew what they weren’t going to do. Everyone had heard about that farmer in Indiana. The bank robber, Honeyman James, had pulled the same routine on him. That poor sap took the 1000 to town and tried to deposit it in the very bank that held the lien on his land. They confiscated the stolen bill and had him arrested. While he was inside, they took his farm. Then they let him go with a fine and time served. Not long after, he hung himself from a bridge.

Ed’s farm was just as bad off, but he was a little smarter than that fool from Indiana.

“I’ll take it to Liza in New York,” he said.

“You’ll lose it before you get there.”

“I won’t.”

“Then you’ll lose it in New York.”

“Liza will know what to do.”

“Then she’ll take it from you.”

“She’s my sister.”

“What do I do if the men from the bank come while you’re east?”

“Tell them they have to carry you off the land.”

“If they come, I’m asking them to drive me to my mama’s. I hear they do that if you promise to leave quiet.”

“I’m not going to fail.”

“If you get the farm back, you know where I’ll be.”

The bill was crisp and new. President Cleveland looked heroically to his right—For All Debts Public And Private. Ed walked seventeen miles, away from town, past the dry stubble of winter cornfields to the bend before the Mosopawn Bridge. As the freight train approached, he ran alongside a boxcar that was cracked open just a bit. As it came close enough to touch, it flew open wider so Ed could jump in. Two small, dirty men sat in the car. One of them held a knife.

“Thanks for the help,” Ed said.

“That costs.”

“I’m busted. Why do you think I’m riding this way?”

“I don’t think you understand. Whatever you got hidden away, it needs to come out.”

Ed wouldn’t have any problem with these two in a fair fight, but he knew a quick man with a blade could be trouble.

“There’s nothing hidden away.”

“Give us the coat.”

Ed’s coat was long and tattered. Neither of these men could wear it, but they could probably sleep in it.

“I thank you again for the help, but I’m keeping everything that’s mine.”

The men looked at each other for a second before the one with the knife spoke.

“Watch yourself when it gets dark, big man.”

“He means it.”

Ed believed them.

“All right, look,” he said. “I got a nickel.”

He jangled the change in his pocket—seventeen cents—as he closed the distance quickly between himself and the unarmed man. Ed grabbed the little guy and pitched him off the train. The other man didn’t move. The train hadn’t hit the bridge yet. It was still at a trotting pace.

“You want me to help you off, too?”

The man tucked away his knife and jumped.

It was just after 10 PM the next day when Ed got to New York. He’d been there one time, before he’d been married or owned a farm. The city hadn’t lost any of its blaze or its pace. In fact, it seemed faster but angrier. He had Liza’s address on the back of an envelope. She always wrote at Christmas and said she was doing well, giving violin lessons, playing small concerts and private functions, but her block in the west 20s was dark and smoky. It smelled even more poisonous than the main avenues, and two of the upstairs windows in her building were broken. He knocked on the door. It didn’t open, but a sharp woman’s voice came right away.

“Who are you?”

“I’m here to see Liza Brown. I’m her brother.”

“No visitors after ten. Not even brothers.”

“Please. Does she live here?”

“Go away.”

“Ma’am, it’s important family business.”

“We get too much important family business. Too many brothers in here.”

“I’m not leaving.”

“You want me to call the cops?”

“Ma’am, just tell her I’m here.”

“Listen, Mac.” The woman opened the door wide enough to get a look at Ed. “Oh, you’re Liza’s brother.”

“That’s what I was trying to tell you.”

“All right, come in. I’ll see if she’s up there.”

He stood in the main room. There was a small kitchen with no stove and a scratched-up table that could probably seat eight if they crowded in. A minute later, Liza came down the stairs.

“Say, you really are my brother.”

She was only a few inches shorter than Ed but not nearly as thick. Two years younger, she had the same sharp features and deep blue eyes. But his were still and cautious, hers were quick, amused, unflappable. She hugged him and they went up to her tiny room. They could hear Crosby singing Dinah from down the hall.

“What brings you to town?”

He told her everything—Honeyboy and the cash, the lien on his land, and the farmer from Indiana. Then he showed her the bill. She smoothed it out on a small crate by her bed.

“Hiya, Grover,” she said. “What have you been up to, sugar pie?”

“Can we deposit it somewhere?”

“You really trust me.”

“You’re blood.”

“Not going to work.”

“Why not?”

“Look where I live. Look what I own. I’m not going to do much better than that hayseed out in Indiana.”

“So what do we do?”

“I’ve got a few ideas. Let’s go see a man I know.”

“Right now?”

She threw on an old coat, and they walked downtown.

“Say, how’s Ida?”

“Ida is fine.”

“Uh oh.”

“I said she was fine.”

“All right. She’s fine.”

“She’s had to put up with a lot,” Ed said. “We’ll see.”

“If you go home with money, you think everything will be all right?”

He didn’t have an answer for that, but they kept walking down Seventh Avenue. Building after building, people walking straight at them then darting past at the last second, men who seemed to be standing heedless out in the middle of the street, just barely avoiding the cabs and streetcars.

Soon they came to a five-story building on a curved street.

“Who are we going to see?”

“Just some artistics.”

The front door was open, and they walked to the top floor where about forty people were packed inside two small rooms, mostly laughing and drinking clear liquid out of blue tea cups. Two men near the window were arguing—one pounded furiously on the cover of a book. On the phonograph, some foreign man was singing in English about his Mimi.

“Liza, Liza.” A woman ran over to them. “You brought your brother. Liza says that you own half the hogs in Illinois. You’re very rich but too stingy. Why so stingy, Edward?”

“I made all that up,” Liza said. “Where’s Weaver?”

“Who?”

“The man who lives here?”

“Oh, we told him to leave because he was such a gloomy pill. I think he went out to eat. You want a cup?”

Liza took a drink, but Ed couldn’t imagine having a belt in a place like this. One of the men by the window threw a book across the room.

“You should have been here earlier,” the woman said. “Buddy put a whole pigeon in his trousers.”

“Buddy is a dangerous intellectual.”

Liza had one more drink then they left and checked the open restaurants until Liza spotted their man through the window of a coffee shop about five blocks away. A little guy with glasses and wild hair.

“I have to talk to him alone,” she said. “Let me have the bill.”

“No.”

“But I’m blood. You trust me.”

“I don’t trust him.”

“Okay, you go in first, sit near him but don’t look at him. Then I’ll come in.”

“With the money?”

“Yeah.”

Ed went into the coffee shop and took a seat two tables from the man with the wild hair. People were drinking tea and reading, marking up their books as they went, and Ed was worried that he’d have to buy something. He’d been at the table almost a minute before the woman at the front called to him.

“You need something, honey?”

He didn’t answer. He couldn’t think of what to say.

“This place isn’t just for sitting. Are you waiting for someone?”

“Yes,” he managed.

“You want a cup of coffee in the meantime?”

What was a cup of coffee? A nickel, a dime? The idea of spending that much on something he didn’t even want was terrifying. The man with the wild hair looked up from his book.

“Maybe he doesn’t speak English,” he said. “Du Pratar Svenska?”

“I am waiting for someone,” Ed said finally.

“All right, then. But you need to order when your friend shows up,” the lady said.

Finally Liza walked in.

“Weaver, dear. Got something to ask you.”

She motioned him to the back of the shop. Ed couldn’t see them anymore, but he could still hear. She told him how she’d come into some money and needed him to change it.

“You have it with you?” he asked.

“Can you change it?”

“Of course I can. I have a lot of cash back at my uptown place.”

“Let’s go.”

“Let me see the thousand.”

Ed heard the sound of money changing hands.

“You are the answer to my prayers,” Weaver said.

“Why is that?”

“You know I had to give up the place uptown? And the car. I sold my class ring to some Jew.”

“I’m sorry, dear.”

“So I’m going to take this money.”

“Right. And you’re going to give me smaller bills. Tens, twenties, even hundreds are all right.”

“No. I’m going to take it and keep it and give you nothing.”

“Don’t play around.”

“You can go to the police. See how that works for you. Or you can go back to my place and tell your friends who sit around drinking my booze that I’m a crook. Maybe they’ll worry their free ride is coming to an end, but they won’t lift a finger to help you.”

He stood and walked out of the shop. Ed was too shocked to move. Liza tapped him on her way by and pulled him out to the street, but it was too busy for fighting. Weaver was moving quickly uptown.

“I’ll stay on his back.” She pointed down a connecting street. “You run around that way. Past one intersection, then the next. You turn left on Charles. Go straight until you see Weaver’s building. He’ll show up, you sock him one.”

Ed took off down the cobbled streets, past one intersection, up to another. He didn’t see the word Charles anywhere. Should he turn back? Continue? He kept going, and at the next intersection—there it was. Charles Street. He turned left. A minute later he saw Weaver’s building. It was dark and empty out in front of it. Just as Ed caught his breath again, Weaver came around the corner from the opposite direction. He stopped when he saw a huge and stupid man in the middle of the sidewalk. But then Liza came up from behind and kicked him hard in the back of his legs. He fell to his knees.

“Get his arms, Ed.”

Ed rushed forward and pinned Weaver’s chest and shoulders to the ground. He struggled, but he wasn’t a strong man.

“Help! Help me!”

Liza went through his pockets until she found his wallet. She checked to make sure the 1000 was in there. She also dumped a few coins into her hand then threw the wallet on top of the man.

“You throw a good party, Weaver.”

Ed followed his sister as she ran around the corner. When they slowed to a quick walk, he saw the river to the west.

“Sorry about that rat. At least we made eleven cents on the deal.”

She put the change in her handbag.

“Let me have the money, my money.”

“Hey, all right. You don’t have to snarl.”

She handed him the thousand back.

“You know, one time President Cleveland got a woman in trouble. So he put her in the nut house and gave the baby to this really nice couple in Buffalo.”

“What are we going to do now?”

“I’ve got another idea.”

“What time is it?”

“Why, you have to be up early?”

“No.”

“I do. Violin lesson. I give Bess Flynn 45 minutes before school.”

“How much do they pay you?”

“I can eat there whenever I want. That’s something.”

They walked back uptown. In the 30s, they passed a row of shacks, some built with loose boards and ripped pieces of tar paper. Others were neater and looked almost professionally constructed. Ed could see candlelight inside some of the houses, but it was quiet out in front. Then they turned east toward the brightest, busiest part of the city, past all the neon and streetcars and men in expensive suits, right to a restaurant and nightclub called The Tuxedo—but they were stopped at the door.

“We have to talk to Lottie at coat check,” Liza said. “Then we’ll be on our way.”

“I’m sorry, Miss, but Lottie will have to conduct her personal business on her own time. Now you need to move on.”

“You’re Ken, right? Lottie’s told me all about you.”

“Would you please move along.”

“I’ll bet your wife in Bay Ridge would be awfully interested in what you get up to after work.”

“You can’t threaten me. I am a decent man.”

“Maybe, you are, but you wouldn’t believe the things I’d be willing to say. I’ve read some of those French novels.”

“Miss, I’m going to ask you—"

“Give me two minutes with my friend. Is it really any skin off your nose?”

Lottie was a tiny woman with a husky voice. She stood behind a counter in front of furs, hats, and canes. She was happy to see Liza.

“Your brother is plenty rugged,” she said.

“Yeah, we run tall in our family.”

“You’re not eating here, are you?”

“No, I had a question for you. Can I come back there?”

Lottie opened up the half door and let Liza in the room. Liza whispered something in her ear. Lottie hugged her, and Liza turned her just a bit while they embraced and found pen and paper. While Lottie was writing, Liza quickly unhooked a nice dark coat and tossed it to Ed. He wrapped it in his own coarse one. He looked around, but no one was paying them the least attention.

When Lottie was done writing, she folded the paper and handed it to Liza. By then, a fashionable couple was approaching coat check.

Lottie looked at Ed.

“If you catch him, you give him one for me.”

Liza pulled Ed away from coat check, past Ken, and out into the streets.

“What’d you tell her?”

“She once needed a special kind of doctor. I got you a hat, too. Try on your new rags.”

The coat was a little small, but it looked good. He thought the top hat was ridiculous, but Liza shook her head.

“It’s great: you’re a butter and egg man. No sharp room would turn away your business. Now we’re going down to Bedford. There’s a spot where we can roll dice.”

“What? No, we don’t need to gamble.”

“We’ll swap Grover for chips, play an hour, then cash out—probably a little lighter.”

“We’re going to lose some of the money?”

“Or maybe we’ll win a little. You came 8000 miles on roller skates, you might have to drop a little lettuce.”

She filled him in on what to expect as they walked. It felt like they’d been on their feet all night, past shops and elevated train lines that were all starting to look the same. Bedford was mostly a residential street, not too far from the party at Weaver’s.

For the first time, Ed noticed his sister’s ratty old jacket.

“Don’t you need a better coat?”

“Nope.” She took off the jacket and folded it over a metal railing that ran horizontally in front of a building. “If I lose it, you’ll buy me a new one, right?”

She had on a simple black dress. It didn’t look formal, but on a girl as tall and striking as Liza, it didn’t look cheap. She nudged him ahead then down a set of stairs.

“Yeah?”

A deep man’s voice came through the door even before they knocked.

“Just in from Chicago. Looking for something to do,” Ed said.

“No. Not here.”

“Come on, Rudy. You know me,” Liza said.

“There’s no Rudy here. Get off my stairs. I mean it.”

Liza tried some more of the cute stuff, but it didn’t work. When they got back up to street level, Ed smelled something odd—like alfalfa but sweeter. Liza was already walking toward it. Up on the steps in front of a very slender building, a young man was smoking.

“Jerry?”

“Who’s that?” The man put out the cigarette and held it behind his back.

“Relax. It’s me, Liza.”

“Liza, Liza? You’re gambling tonight?”

“My brother would like to. They won’t let us in.”

“Yeah, they’ve tightened up. There was word of reckless individuals. I’ll get you in.”

“Finish your tea.”

“No, I got a set to start. Hey, bring your fiddle some time. We’ll get downright classical.”

Liza laughed and Jerry led them back down the stairs. Ed was frisked thoroughly, but they got inside. The whole place was one open room filled with tables. It was about ninety percent male, but there were a few women bouncing around near the roulette wheels. Jerry left them at the change counter.

“Friends of mine, Sal,” he said. “Bigshot hog farmer from out west.”

“How many hogs do you have?” Sal asked.

“Nine thousand five hundred,” Ed said.

“How do you get them to fuck so much?”

“Sir, you can’t talk that way around a lady.”

“My mistake,” Sal said. “How much you need?”

Ed put the 1000 on the counter.

“A thousand?”

“You don’t have that many chips?” Liza asked.

“You got to be careful with the big paper.”

“You can let us play on credit if you like.”

“Let me get the sourdough man.”

Sal waved to someone across the room, and they all stood around for a minute and listened to Jerry play Fats Waller note-for-note on the piano. Finally, an older man with ink stains on the front of his shirt came by to look at the money. He flipped it over once then held it up to the light.

“It’s good. Give them chips.”

They walked over to the roulette table. Liza patted Ed once on the shoulder.

“Nine thousand five hundred hogs. That was perfect.”

Ed wasn’t sure why it was perfect. He only knew that would be a lot of animals to care for.

“Let me have a few chips.” Liza held out one hand when he didn’t cough up right away. “Come on, we’re here to play.”

He gave her five 20-dollar chips, and she threw one right on red. He wanted to snatch it off the table or stop that ball spinning before it landed somewhere black. It came up on 17.

“Hard times,” Liza said.

The croupier took their chip, and Ed felt it like a slug to the stomach. How much bacon was that? How much feed? How much of his land could he buy back for twenty dollars? He grabbed Liza by the shoulder, a little harder than he’d intended.

“Let’s wait a little.”

“We have to bet. We can’t just cash out. Put a hundred down somewhere.”

“No.”

Liza put 40 on red. Again it came up black. But then she went on a streak. When she was 200 dollars up, she traded him five 20s for one of his 100s. She put it on a four-corner and hit it. Maybe this was a good way to make money. Ed put one of his 100-dollar chips on odd and won. He kept playing. As a young man, he’d rolled dice behind a few barns, and once played cards at Dutch Feller’s. None of that was anything like what was happening now. This was like flying. Twenty minutes later, Liza pulled him to the bar. When they were served, Ed threw his shot straight down and asked for another. He knew it was gin, but he could barely taste the alcohol.

“You want to cash out soon?” she asked.

“How much do you have?”

“1600.”

“I’ve got two thousand dollars.” His laugh was a rapid panting sound that he didn’t recognize. “But it seems to me like we could play a little longer and make even more.”

“Ed, we haven’t been winning because we’re smart.”

“Why have we been winning?”

“Luck. We’ve been lucky.”

Lucky. Ed had forgotten what that meant. As a kid he could remember the times their dad made a big sale. One night he came home with a baseball glove for Ed and a violin for Liza. That was luck. But farming just seemed to be a rigged game that got worse each year.

Could it really be true they could walk out with 3600 dollars? It was just as easy to believe they could walk out with a lion on a leash. But if it was real, he was set, wasn’t he? Not only could he get out of debt, he could buy back all his land outright. And a car. And a decent plow. He knew Baker was as bad off as he was. He could buy Baker’s farm, double his acreage. Maybe hire him to work it and split the income.

Ed was the last one in the room to notice the two men with sawed-off shotguns.

“Everybody’s a loser tonight,” one of the gunman said.

Ed could see two more men at the counter getting the money. He turned to Liza.

“They can’t take our money.”

“Hey, Big Corn. Shut up,” the second gunman said.

“You don’t understand,” Ed said.

But, of course, he did understand. He knew how much money was worth. The hopes and dreams. The simple survival. The man took a step toward Ed.

“Another word, I break your nose.”

He was so close now that the rifle was useless, and Ed wrenched the thing out of his hands and threw him to the ground. The other gunman spun and shot, hitting his own man. When he stopped firing, Ed charged him, too. The last thing he saw was a little white ball sitting on number 32, still running around and around.

***


With bodies on the floor, the Bedford Avenue club was finished. But they popped up again in a new location soon after, and over the next few months, some gamblers managed to cash in some of their chips. But Liza never could. They did pay for the coffin and train fare to send Ed back home so he could be buried under his own soil. But when he arrived, no one was there to meet the box. And the bank owned his land.


Preston Lang is a writer from New York. His work has appeared in Thuglit, Betty Fedora, and WebMD. He has published four crime novels with Down and Out Books to date. For more, check out PrestonLangBooks.com.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Tavern Brawler, by Robb T. White

First Dallas, then at the canning plant in Bryan. Now here . . . Fuck me and fuck a duck.

Beaumont was hotter than Dallas and muggier than Houston. Ten in the morning, Shane Laurie’s shirt was plastered to his back. He hadn’t planned to work his way down to southeastern Texas, the asshole of the state. It just happened that way. You go to a bar, a guy says they’re hiring here or there. You go.

He didn’t find work here, it was off to Louisiana again for another goddamned bayou job on a shrimp boat or mucking around with crab traps, and he’d had enough of that. He didn’t know what it was about shellfish. He didn’t eat them—they looked like big bugs to him. He’d worked in Baltimore shucking oysters, fished for blue crab in Louisiana swamps and worked as a deckhand on a shrimp boat in Galveston Bay. Yet that cunt of a receptionist made him check the box “Unskilled Labor” on his application.

Fuck her. He had half a mind to head that her off tonight on her way home, her and her ugly face, homelier than a slit-faced bat, and see just how she likes his unskilled labor after she gargles his jizz. He’d make her check the “unskilled” box she didn’t do it right. Write an F on her fat ass with a Magic Marker.

Shane took a city cab to a roadhouse tavern off the highway near the Neches River. The dumbass driver turned around to look at him, waiting for a tip. Shane told him to get a real job and that was the best tip he’d get today.

Lordy, another redneck dump—his kind of place.

His eyes boxed the room on the lookout for three things: women, women with men (he’d separated his share of them from the girls in bar fights), and three, men who had “that look.”

The look was important. Size didn’t mean shit. Everybody carried down here. A bowie in the boot was as common as a hooker with a grudge. A pipsqueak with a gun was more dangerous than a man his size because a man his size expected Shane to fight fair. Shane didn’t fight fair. A man only had to tangle assholes with him one time to learn that. He’d use his boots as well as his fists, kick balls, gouge eyes, bite anything his teeth could get close to if it came to a ground-and-pound contest. He didn’t believe in stopping once you had your opponent down, neither, and punching the guy after he was out cold or done quit was enough to make him hard. Shane had grown up in a raucous household in Baton Rouge but he didn’t blame his upbringing for his love of violence. Some men like him, it just stuck to. You knew it when you threw that first punch. It wasn’t enough to beat a man half to death, he wanted to make him suffer. He wanted that man to carry scars and think of Shane Laurie from Louisiana for the rest of his sorry-assed life.

This place looked OK so far. The men looked like nobodies, drugstore cowboys, all hat and no cattle, and a couple women looked like they could use a ride on Jumbo. First, he had to find some guy drinking alone at the bar, make friends with him, be a good ol’ boy for a while, so he could get the sucker to buy the drinks. Shane believed his stories of sleeping rough, traveling all over and “doing dirt,” as he liked to call it, made up for his alligator arms when it came to buying rounds. Then he’d eye one of the babes and make a move. Get laid, get a place to sleep. Shane could write a book on hustling by now—that is, if he could write anything longer than a sentence with more than six words in it. Writing was for homos anyway, so fuck that shit.

The bartender was tall, lanky dude in a black leather vest, arms all inked up in a scattershot of tattoos blending into each other, a sure sign of a man who’d done time in a big house somewhere. Shane knew some of that kind, too. Mostly crazies looking for a reason to go back. He’d joined up with a few in his thirty-six years, made some money with some, and figured he knew the difference between the psychos and the hard boys. He couldn’t read the patch from where he sat at the bar and some ex-bikers were pussies, but still, best to be a little careful until he knew for sure. A few minutes of small talk and Shane was being called “brother” by this loser, so he knew he had all the time he needed to plan his next move.

And there she was, hot damn . . . a tricked-out blonde, yee-haw!

Walking past on her way to the can. Big, sassy-looking dyed blonde with a big rack. A little long in the tooth—past 40, he reckoned—but he couldn’t be choosy tonight. On her way back, she cut her eyes to him and she got that teensy smile in return. An hour later, he separated her from her skank girlfriends and the two of them were rubbing thighs and feeling each other out from a back table. His “buddy” at the bar was still sending over drinks, too, so things were working out well for later.

Later was after the bar closed at two-thirty. She drove him in her pickup to a lover’s lane. Somewhere close to the river, he guessed, because the smell of swamp muck was thick in the humid air. His idea of foreplay was to push her head into his lap. He had to give this one credit, though. She knew how to play a decent tune on a man’s flute, did her best not to gag when he made her take it all the way in so her cheeks bulged. He liked that look on a woman’s face.

Back in her double-wide—a “present” from a dead husband who got hisself blown up in a factory explosion—he gave the old girl her money’s worth in bed. He slapped her hands away from her bouncing tits when he plowed into her. He liked to watch them jiggle. She was shaved down there and a natural squirter. Shane finished up, rolled over, and silently complimented himself on a job well done. This old gal should be good for a couple days, maybe a week. Who could say? She played her cards right, Shane would consider letting her keep him around while he looked for work.

Shane snored like a buzz saw out of kilter. He never dreamed, or told all the women he slept with that. He figured that meant he would never get ass cancer or heart attacks like men who tossed and turned all night, worrying about shit.

In the morning, he thought about giving her another ride with some morning wood. But he couldn’t get out of bed.

Maybe I’m still asleep and this is one of them dreams. What the fuck—

When he shook off the booze fog, he saw it was no dream at all. He was roped hands and feet to the bed railing. He was about to bellow something, figured the crazy old bitch was into kinky sex when she came out of the bathroom. Her heavy funbags swayed from side to side. She avoided looking at him. When she did, the look on her face, however, was not one he expected to see. He expected to see gratitude. . . what was all this shit?

“George was hopin’ he’d live long enough to see this,” she said.

“Who the fuck is George, why you got me tied up?”

“George was my husband, remember? I told you about him last night at the bar.”

“Got kilt in a factory explosion, you said.”

“I lied,” she said. “He got pancreatic cancer.”

She stretched out the word, as if she was proud of herself for saying it right.

“So fuckin’ what? Untie me right now, God damn it!”

She sat at the end of the bed and stroked his leg.

“Honey, you got a big whang on you but George, he was much better in the sack than you.”

“Take these ropes offen me, and I’ll change your mind about that.”

Shane began to worry. She was too calm—way too calm.

She lit up, inhaled deep, and blew out the smoke. She stretched over him her cigarette extended to give him a puff, her fat titties rolling over his chest.

“Naw, he didn’t work in no factory,” she resumed, as if they were having a normal conversation. “He worked at the alligator processing farm yonder by the river over to Benson Road—you know, skins for fashion, the meat for agricultural animals, that sort of thing.”

“So fuckin’ what? What’s that got to do with me?”

“Nothing—to me, but that’s how I met him. He come lookin’ around the bar before you showed up, askin’ questions, spreadin’ his money around.”

Shane’s heartbeat rose a notch. Woman’s plumb fuckin’ crazy . . .

He squirmed but the ropes bit into his wrists and ankles. He twisted his head. She had him tied off with an anchor hitch or a bowline, some kind of good knot he wouldn’t pull out of.

“Bitch, you best untie me right now and I’ll forget all about this—this whatever the fuck it is.”

“Oh no,” she said, testing the knots securing his legs, “”can’t do that, sweetie pie. My instructions was simple. First, I’m gonna get me some clothes on and make a phone call.”

Instructions? What instructions? What was this goofy old broad talking about?

“You behave yourself now.” She gave his thigh a gentle pat.

Shane’s heart thumped in his chest now. He stopped twisting; it wasted strength and moving against the ropes burned as well as cut off circulation. His hands and legs were going numb. He had to plan his own attack . . . rip this bitch’s head off just as soon as he could get free . . .

The buzzer rang. He heard her greet someone at the door. He heard talking in low voices. Hers wasn’t like the night before, all flirty. Maybe she spiked his beer when he went off to piss. He recalled feeling a little dizzy when they left the bar. Trouble was, he was thinking with his dick and didn’t pay it no mind—just the miserable heat, he thought. Besides, his sights were set on pussy. The man’s voice sounded younger. Someone his age.

Then, whoever the guy was, he was standing right above him looking down at Shane. His face blank, no expression. Just a man, a nobody. Average size—Shane could bust him up in a minute. Thinning brown hair parted on one side, brown eyes, a face you wouldn’t remember in a crowd.

“Do you remember me?” the man asked him.

“No., motherfucker,” Shane said. “Who the fuck are you?”

“I’ve been following you all over Southeastern Texas,” he said. “I’m surprised you never saw me. I remember once time you were coming out of a bar in Crockett—no, hold up a sec. It was Lovelady. I remember you looked right across the street at me standing there.”

The man smiled down at him but it wasn’t a friendly smile.

“I don’t remember you,” Shane replied.

“I’ll take it from here,” the man said, suddenly turning to face the woman, who stood at the foot of the bed watching them both.

“Where’s my money?”

The man reached inside his jeans pocket and handed her an envelope.

“It’s all there,” he told her.

“I’m gonna count it anyway,” she said and left the room. “I don’t want this comin’ back on me. Y’all promised that.”

The man was looking at Shane again. His brown eyes stared into Shane’s eyes, unblinking, as if he saw something remarkable in Shane’s irises.

“Don’t worry,” he replied. “It’s all taken care of.”

“Who the fuck are you people!” Spittle flecked Shane’s chest from the outburst. His voice cracked.

The man said, “Shane Laurie, bar brawler. . . . Shane, you by any chance recall a man you fought outside a tavern in Dallas about eight, nine weeks ago?”

Shane remembered a couple bar fights up that way. He was doing a lot of meth at the time, ornery as a wasp.

“No, I fuckin’ don’t, motherfucker.”

“Well,” the man said, “it was you up in Dallas. You beat up a man in a parking lot outside a bar called Shenanigan’s. That man later died from a brain hemorrhage two days later. You started the fight with another man, but the man who came outside to protect his friend, he was the one you beat up.”

“I don’t remember no fuckin’ bar in Dallas nor no fight, neither, motherfucker,” Shane said.

He did, though. It wasn’t much of a fight. Dim images of his triumph behind that bar filtered back, like water seeking its equilibrium, tickling the memory cells.

“That was a fair fight—”

“No, it wasn’t,” the man interjected. “No . . . no, it wasn’t a fair fight. You stomped his head when he went down.”

“I tole you, I don’t remember no fight up in Dallas,” Shane said. “I wasn’t even in Dallas eight weeks ago. What the hell is this?”

“This is Texas justice,” the man said and brought the fish billy down on Shane’s head with a loud crack that Shane never heard but it sent him plummeting into a black void.

***


Shane woke to the sound of crickets chirping, the smell of swamp muck deep in his nostrils. He lay on his back. He was still nude, his ass itched from chigger bites or something, his head weighed a ton. He sat up and almost vomited.

Nothing to see swamp, cypress trees, and lily pads.

Better’n being shot, he thought, but Gawd damn, my head hurts. I’ll find that motherfucker and kill him, Shane thought.

Shane started to get up and fell over at once. What the fuck now, for Christ’s sweet sake?

Shane’s leg was attached to a thick nylon rope that was attached to a limb hanging out over the waterline. It was tied with a fancy knot he did recognize because he’d tied it on the decks of bayou trawlers often enough: a rat-tail stopper.

He shouted. Nothing. His voice echoed across the murky water. His throat was parched but the water looked too putrid to drink. Swamp birds cried out, insects made a variety of buzzing, whirring sounds all around.

If this don’t beat fuckin’ all, he thought. The whole episode from trailer to swamp was so bizarre he almost laughed. A good story to tell the next sucker in a bar to spring for drinks. But, first, he was gonna find that rat-fucking , no-good, brown-eyed son of a whore and choke the life out of him—after he stomped every drop of yellow shit out of him.

Then a thought crept in. Maybe he was dragged out here so far no one ever came by, not even swamp people or fishermen.

Then he spied something behind him. A damned wooden sign. Maybe a jogger’s trail sign or a park sign. It was just a few feet beyond the limit of his rope. His anxiety subsided. That sign meant civilization. He wasn’t going to die out here in some shithole swamp.

Worth a look to read what it said, he thought, since I ain’t goin’ anywhere anytime soon.

Shane found a crooked stick near the waterline and used it to hook the sign post. He jerked and pulled until the letters started to reflect the light. He could make out a few letters. B-E-A-U.

Well, hell’s bells, I know I’m in Beaumont.

He was never much for reading in school before he dropped out of tenth grade but the rest of the sign’s message eluded him.

“Fuck it,” he said.

Shane sat down and slapped the stick at the ground in frustration: sandy soil, not overgrown but graded, someone had cleared this patch of ground into a rough semicircle stretching thirty yards across and sanded it down with a grader. Shane let his mind drift, listening to the insect and bird calls. Eight caws of a crow somewhere above in the branches. Eight, a warning to the other crows, four would be a call to dinner.

He got up stretched, scratched his belly. He was being feasted upon by bugs and flying insects while he sat. He slapped at a tiny red spider crawling up his forearm. “Lucky I don’t get bugs in my asshole,” he muttered. Somebody’s got to find me soon . . .

He grabbed his stick and made another effort to twist the sign around to read it. The light had shifted, dappled the leaves of the cypress and probed the tufts of hanging moss, giving the entire swamp a lime-green phosphorescence.

There, by God, got you.

The sign reflected the afternoon light, filled out the missing letters after BEAUMONT and each one etched itself into Shane’s brain as comprehension completed the neocortex’s circuit.

BEAUMONT ALLIGATOR FARM.

Oh fuck, no—

Beneath it, in smaller letters:

Danger !!! Do NOT Feed the Alligators!!

Oh my fucking God Almighty—

When he turned back around to look out over the water, he saw them gathering in the dusky light: hundreds of pairs of eyes like cat’s-eye marbles spread out just beneath the surface. Eyes as far as he could see.

Then the massive snouts, the ancient dragon spikes breaking the surface here and there. They moved en masse toward the shoreline. Ripples fanned outward from their massive tails moving side to side like a metronome set to larghissimo. Some bulls weighed a thousand pounds. Like dragons from mythology, they rolled in, ever closer, no hurry, but steadfast on the mark. Each moved in a motion like one pack. They were crueler than any man, indifferent to all pain or remorse, underwater brawlers, oblivious to everything in the universe but mating and eating.

‘Texas justice’, the brown-eyed man had said, the words tolling like a bell of doom in Shane Laurie’s head.

Robb White lives in Ashtabula, Ohio. He writes, noir, crime, and hardboiled stories and novels featuring series character Thomas Haftmann. A recent collection of crime stories is Dangerous Women: Stories of Crime, Mystery, and Mayhem. Crowood Press published White’s Perfect Killer in 2018. Fahrenheit Press, another U.K. publisher, released Northtown Eclipse that year. “Inside Man” was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2019. His website is http://tomhaftmann.wixsite.com/robbtwhite.