Monday, October 21, 2019

The Covenant, fiction by LIbby Cudmore

Excerpt From The Book of Common Practice, Chapter 13: The eve before the wedding, the bridegroom’s brother must unbury the caskets of no fewer than five relations and place them outside the church. The back pew must be left empty, with a bouquet of magnolias tied to the ends so that the wandering souls may find their way to the ceremony.

At the conclusion of the marriage ceremony, one casket is buried in front of the new homestead, while the others are returned to the ground. In place of the departed casket, the lilies are buried beneath the headstone.

“Isn’t it romantic?” Amy gushed, turning her tablet and pointing to a stock photo of bride and groom skeletons that Buzzfeed had helpfully placed under the heading “Weird Wedding Traditions.” “In Covenant, Kentucky, they unbury their dead,” she read aloud. “This way, the dearly departed can enjoy the ceremony, and one casket is buried in the yard of the couple’s new home to protect them from thieves and misfortune.”

“That’s just fine,” said Cyrus. “Except last I checked, we were in Covenant, Florida, where people leave the dead buried in their graves.”

It had not been Cyrus’ idea to return to his hometown for their wedding. His fiancĂ©e, Amy had insisted, bolstered by glossy brochures of sunny soft-focus weddings, too worried that her Perfect Day might be ruined by a traffic jam or a hurricane. He tried to explain that they had traffic and hurricanes here too, but she didn’t buy it. Born and raised in Miami, she saw Covenant as a charming, panhandle town where everything was cute and perfect and precise, a 1950s vision of American Life, preserved like peach slices in glass jars. But it had changed. Cyrus barely recognized the home of his childhood. What were once empty fields were now strip malls and retirement communities, old single-pump gas stations razed and turned into scarf boutiques and Korean nail salons. They didn’t need to dig up any bodies. There were still plenty of ghosts who trod the soil of Covenant. There were still plenty of secrets buried, never to be unearthed.

“Oh, come on,” Amy said. “Any basic bitch can have mason jars and chalkboards at her wedding, but if we put caskets outside the church, we’d make the front page of Offbeat Bride in a heartbeat. Hell, we might make HuffPo Weddings. We would be a viral sensation. Trend-setters.”

“I don’t want to be a trend-setter,” he said. “And I have no need to make the front page of Offbeat Bride.” He leaned in and kissed her forehead. “All I want is to be married to you, darlin’.”

She saw right through his ruse. She slapped him playfully on the arm. “You never let me have any fun,” she said.


Cyrus didn’t know if it was nerves or a hangover, but he felt like one lone black fly was buzzing around in his empty skull. The sticky scent of magnolias was turning his stomach enough, but underneath them, he swore he smelled dread and decay. He knew he shouldn’t have had that last round, not the one at the Lucky Horse Saloon with his cousin Kyle and Amy’s dumbshit brother Tyler, but the late-night raid on the minibar to calm his nerves when the other drinks kept him jittery and awake. He pinched his temples and hoped he made it through the ceremony without throwing up.

Kyle and Tyler were still a little drunk, chortling behind their hands as they waited on the dais for the processional to begin. And when the music started–a three piece quartet’s rendition of Shania Twain’s “From This Moment On”–Amy drifted up the aisle on a cloud of lace and tulle. He didn’t even mind that she was wearing glittery cowboy boots under her dress. She was more beautiful than he’d ever imagined any woman would be, and it wasn’t the whiskey that brought tears to his eyes. All her petty annoyances went away in the moment she got up to the altar and placed her manicured hands in his.

But when Kyle passed him Amy’s ring, Cyrus noticed dirt under his fingernails. He didn’t give it much thought until he noticed that Tyler had dirt on his hands too. And then all he could stare at was the empty back pew of the church.


“It was supposed to be a joke!” Amy said.

“A joke?” Cyrus yelled back. “Amy, that is a real casket with a real body buried on our front lawn! Do you have any idea how many kinds of illegal that is?”

They had gotten home late Sunday night and Cyrus had all but fallen asleep in his clothes. They had both taken Monday off to recover from the weekend, but he had still woken up early, his mouth dry. Staring out the kitchen window while the coffee brewed, he had noticed a swatch of freshly-dug ground. And when he’d gone out to investigate, he kicked aside the dirt to find an old oak casket buried just a few feet down.

“We don’t know that it wasn’t here when we bought the place,” she said. “Maybe we just didn’t notice it until now.”

“It’s a freshly-dug grave!” he said, his voice rising in pitch. “I can guarantee you they left that out the sale listings!”

Amy's eyes started to fill with tears, but he wasn't in the mood for any of it. "Call Tyler," he said. "Borrow his truck. If we leave now, we can get back to Covenant late this afternoon and get this taken care of."

She went back inside, but he could still hear her yelling at Tyler. He went back to the grave, still uncovered from the dirt he dug up. There was a small brass plaque, tarnished with dirt and age. He pulled his jacket cuff over his hand and rubbed one clean enough to see the inscription.

Oh shit.


“Orthwina was the matriarch of the Beckerman family,” Cyrus explained. “During the Civil War, the Beckerman whores would sleep with sleep with soldiers from both sides, sometimes on the same night, and sell the secrets to the highest bidder. They were bootleggers in the 20s, union goons up through the 50s, ran dope through the 80s and last I knew, meth. Orthwina’s been gone for awhile and when she died, the whole town turned out for her funeral. I remember my father taking me, but when the little Korean ladies at Nail Palace didn’t attend—they didn’t know—the next day, their windows were shot up. The Beckermans do not screw around.”

Rike and Sawyer Beckerman, Orthwina’s grandsons, had been classmates of his. He wasn’t surprised they were running meth. They were a couple of ugly kids, thieves of Ninja Turtles and baseball cards, but no one ever dared to try and take them back. Orthwina had rules, she had honor even in her brutality, but her son, Weston Beckerman, did not, and he had no intention of passing that on to his boys. Cyrus always had a secret crush on their sister, Malloy, a year ahead in school, beautiful and unfalteringly kind, seemingly removed from all of it like a cool breeze on a hot day. He wondered if she was still in Covenant, if she fell into her family’s trap or if she got away clean.

Amy looked like she was about to throw up. Tyler just scoffed. “So we just re-bury the casket,” he said. “No big deal. I doubt they’ll even notice it missing. It was in, like, in the woods at the back of the cemetery.”

“That’s the family plot, idiot,” Cyrus said. “They’ll notice that their grandmother has been exhumed.”

“Can’t we just explain that we thought we were following a tradition?” Amy said.

He wanted to yell at her. He knew he couldn’t. “I highly doubt they’ll be swayed by a tradition you read about on a website where you can take a quiz about what sort of cheese awakened you sexually,” he said through gritted teeth. “And even if it was a real thing, which I doubt, you’re supposed to take from your side of the family, not someone else’s relatives.”

“So what do we do?” Amy bleated.

He sighed. “We don’t have a choice,” he said. “We’ll have to rebury them, and hope the boys have fallen short in their visitation.”


Amy stayed behind. Cyrus fought the feeling that he might never see her again. The ride back to Covenant was quiet; every speed trap felt like it was laid just for him. Even the toll operators seemed sinister. For the first few hours, Tyler tried to make conversation. Cyrus wasn’t having any of it. He wished Kyle was here, at least. Then he might feel like he had someone on his side.

It was nearing dark when they arrived. Tyler offered to let Cyrus stay in his place, but he declined. He’d rather sleep in the Dumpster behind the needle exchange than at whatever solo frat house Tyler currently kept. He’d spent enough nights sleeping on Tyler’s couch in his 20s, when he was new in town, before Tyler introduced him to Amy.

“How long are you going to be pissed at me about this?” Tyler said as he pulled up in front of the Embassy hotel. “It was a stupid prank, man. You didn’t used to be this uptight.”

He grabbed his bag out of the back of the cab. “I’ll stop being pissed when we both come out of this alive,” he said. “Pick me up at midnight; we’ll see if we can’t get it in then.”


Midnight seemed like it might have been days from now. Cyrus took a shower, he watched some TV, he called Amy to tell her they had a plan. And finally, when he ran out of options, he went down to the hotel bar. Maybe a $10 well whiskey would calm his nerves.

The bar was filled with businessmen, near-identical in their cheap suits, drinking hard on company cards. There was a bartender who wore the smile of the chronically under-tipped, a couple of young women who kept leaning their tits on the bar when they were sure the men were looking, and, in the corner, one woman, all in black, drinking bourbon with a bored expression.

Malloy Beckerman.

He turned to take his drink upstairs, but she spotted him and gestured him over with one perfectly manicured red finger. “I know you,” she said. “We went to school together. I’m sure of it.”

“Cyrus,” he said. “Cyrus Greene.”

She smiled. “Of course,” she said. “We were in choir. I always thought you were cute. What are you doing here?”

He knew he should have made an excuse to leave. He knew he should have told her he was someone else, pretended not to remember her. But in his gut he was still 17, and to be invited to sit anywhere near Malloy Beckerman was a dream come true. “Just back for a visit,” he said, settling into the chair across from her. “You?”

“Getting a drink after work,” she said. “Same as these clowns.”

“You work with some of them?”

“God, no,” she said. She gestured to the blonde in the red satin tube dress, trying to dance to the thin tunes coming over the bar’s sound system. “I’ve seen her a couple times. Talks too loud, carries three different phones. I always assumed she worked outcall. Must be a big trade show in town.”

“What are you, a madam?” he joked.

She actually laughed. “A hairdresser, actually.” she said. “What about you? Heard you just got married.”

That took him by surprise. How did she know? She must have seen the shock splattered across his face because she pointed at his left hand. “Your ring, dummy,” she teased. “And I saw the announcement in the paper. You should have called. I would have done up your bride’s hair.”

He laughed to cover the painful exhale of a breath held too tight in his chest. “Right,” he said, twisting the ring. “Guess I’m still getting used to it. You?”

“Divorced,” she said. “Two years now. He said we were ‘incompatible,’ but I don’t need to visit a strip-mall psychic to know what that means.”

“Divorced?” He couldn’t imagine anyone cheating on Malloy. She was somehow even more beautiful at 35 than she had been at 17, her dark hair worn in loose waves, her mouth heart-shaped and velvety with a dark red lipstick, curvy and leggy in a black dress that fit her like it was made of cling wrap. He killed the rest of his drink like he was trying to drench a fire, but before he could stop himself, he sputtered, “How? How could anyone leave you?”

She blushed. “You’re sweet,” she said. “No, I don’t blame him. Rike and Sawyer drove him off. I’m sure that comes as no surprise to you.”

“Not one bit,” he said.

“Yeah, well they’ve only gotten worse,” she said. “Dad died a few years ago and they took the family business in, shall we say, a different direction.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh Cyrus,” she chided. “Don’t play coy. We’re both adults. You know what my family does.”

He wished he had another drink. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I do.”

She finished her own and pushed the glass aside. He noticed that she had little crystal gemstones on the nail of her index finger. “That’s not even the worst part,” she said. “The worst part is that with Dad gone, other organizations are trying to make a play. They see Rike and Swayer as weak, which they are, so we’re constantly on the brink of war. Last year we really had it out with the Hosten family out of Atlanta. I ended up brokering the truce, but not before there were a couple bodies dropped. I’ll spare you the details.”

He tried to pretend it was the whiskey that slapped him hard across the face, the dizzying rush of blood to his cheeks. “That’s…that’s awful,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah, well, it’s about to get a lot worse,” she said. “The Lyle organization just sent us a pretty hard-line message. They’ve been trying to get at our family for years, and now they might have the means. Rike and Sawyer are already prepping for war.”

Cyrus motioned to the bartender for two more drinks. His hands were shaking as he seized his; he inhaled half of it before he spoke. “What was the message?” he asked.

“They dug up my grandmother’s casket.”


Tyler’s apartment was a lot neater than Cyrus expected it to be. He imagined Amy’s mother coming over weekly to pick up after her baby; they had caught her in the kitchen at the wedding, pestering the catering staff to “just let her help tidy up.” Tyler had to come get him from the hotel after he said goodbye to Malloy; he was too anxious to drive over there. He blurted everything on the ride over.

“We’re dead,” he repeated for what felt like the tenth time. “We are so dead.”

“Maybe we can talk to Malloy,” said Tyler. “She seems like she hates her brothers, maybe she can help us.”

“Are you insane?” Cyrus said. “We can’t tell a soul. If this gets out, we’ll be killed, either by the Lyle family, who try to take the body from us, or by the Beckermans themselves.”

Tyler didn’t respond for a few minutes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry I got us into this.”

Then suddenly, Cyrus knew what to do. “We’ll have to burn her,” he said. “If they think the Lyles are involved, they’ll keep fighting them until one side gives up. But we can’t risk getting caught with her body. It’s the only way.”

Tyler didn’t seem fazed by his suggestion, like Cyrus had suggested they go bowling instead of playing mini-golf. “My family’s got a cabin,” he said. “We can take it there.”


Cyrus drank in the car. He had to. He needed to be good and drunk before he opened that casket and took out Orthwina’s body to burn in fire pit at Tyler’s cabin. Tyler, somehow the more sober of the two of them, would be tasked with chopping up the casket. They would burn that separately. No sense in drawing too much attention with a bonfire made of death and varnish.

A fifth of cheap bourbon polished off, he started building a fire. The body, now wrapped in a sheet, was less than five feet away from him. On the other side of the house, he heard Tyler swinging the ax. He took a deep breath and apologized to Orthwina. He remembered how she gave out full-sized Butterfingers for Halloween, the trays of homemade cookies she brought to church pageants, how she always smelled like lavender. He lifted her onto the makeshift pyre and lit a match.

The stench of the fire nearly brought the whiskey back up. Chemicals and human decay; he staggered out of the direction of the wind and slumped against a tree, trying to stop his guts and the sky from spinning. This is love, he thought. No one will ever love a woman more than I do, right now, in this goddamn moment. And he laughed. He laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks. But he didn’t picture Amy; he imagined Malloy, her body tight against him, her mouth just brushing his as she whispered thank you.

A hand on his shoulder. No, not Malloy. Tyler. “You lightweight,” he said. “Fire’s almost burnt out. Want me to put in the rest?”

He had fallen asleep. The sun was starting to rise. “Yeah,” he said, weaving to his feet. “Yeah, put it on.”

They watched the fire until it was ashes. They poured water over everything, took the brass plaque with her name. Tyler promised he’d bury it somewhere else, somewhere they had no connection to. The war between the Beckermans and the Lyles and whoever else came for them would go on. He just wouldn’t be a part of it.


Even as an adult, the dread of being called down to the principal’s office never went away. Cyrus was just welcoming his kids back from lunch when Louise called him from the classroom phone. “Your wife called,” she said before he could even sit in the chair she offered. “Her brother was found dead this morning.”

“Tyler?” he breathed.

Louise nodded. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’ve already called a substitute to take over your class for the day, if you need to go home….”

He didn’t remember leaving the school. He didn’t remember driving home. He didn’t remember what Amy said when she fell into his arms, wailing. He didn’t come back to his senses until he saw a message on his phone, from Malloy.

We need to talk.


“Please explain to me,” Malloy said as the waiter set down two tumblers of bourbon in front of them. The Embassy hotel bar was empty at this hour, waiting for the businessmen and the tourists and the hookers to fill it again. “Why the nameplate of my grandmother’s casket was found in your brother-in-law’s possession.”

Cyrus took a slow breath, a swallow of bourbon and counted to ten before he answered. “I have no idea,” he lied. “How did you come to find that he had it?”

“He offered to sell it back,” she said. “Told Rike that he had acquired it from the Lyles in exchange for some favors—he didn’t specify what—and would sell it back to us for a million dollars. When he went to the meetup, they killed him.”


“Do you really want to know that?” He didn’t, but he felt he owed it to Tyler to hear the gruesome details. He nodded, weakly, and braced himself with bourbon.

“They burned him,” she said. “Alive. They doused the fire in time for him to suffer. He was in the hospital for six hours, all of it painful, before they called his mother to take him off the ventilator.”

“What are the cops going to do?” he asked.

“Same as what they did when they found the Lyles’ two men with a bullet in his gut,” she said. “And the same as they did when they found Trey Lyle in the river. Nothing. The cops aren’t going to get involved in a mob war. Too many of them are on the take from either side.”

“Why are you telling me this?” he asked.

“Because you’re a good man,” she said. “Tyler’s an idiot. He got himself into trouble he didn’t understand. But you don’t deserve that blowback.”

No, he wasn’t, he the thought. It had been his suggestion to burn the body. He could have called the police. Could have made a different choice, could have come clean now. But he didn’t. And now the bill was coming due in overdraft.

She finally picked up her drink. “Your wife is lucky,” she said. “I’m sorry about her brother, but she’s got a man like you to protect her. I just wonder when they’re going to come for me, make me choose a side. And I don’t have a good man to protect me.”


Malloy told him where Rike and Sawyer would be. They plotted it carefully in his hotel room, and he fought off every urge to kiss her. She gave him a baseball bat for the first strike and a pistol to finish them off with. She would meet him with the car; they would dump the bodies in the quarry. She would negotiate peace with the Lyle family. “They can have it,” she said. “All of it. I just want out.”

He pulled into the parking lot of The Barrel Inn. He remembered drinking here with Tyler, before he introduced him to Amy. Now Tyler was dead, and his poor bride’s heart was broken. It seemed only right that it all ended here. Tonight.

He went inside and ordered a beer. He drank in the back corner, watching them play pool. He left before they did, got the bat out of the backseat and waited. He thought about baseball games in gym class. Rike had punched him once, out on the field, because he had caught a pop fly, and for the rest of the week he spent every waking moment anxious that Sawyer would finish the job. These two deserved what was coming to them. Not just for Tyler. Not just for Malloy.

He didn’t feel anything when he swung the bat into Rike’s head. Even less when he smashed Sawyer’s shoulders. He taped their hands, their feet, their mouths. He loaded them into the truck bed like a fresh kill. He drove out the quarry and cut the bindings. They were still unconscious when he rolled them into the quarry, breaking the majestic moonlight scene on the perfectly still water. They might find them, bloated and black, in a few days. Or maybe they wouldn’t. Rike and Sawyer Beckerman weren’t the first two bodies to vanish in the deep.


Malloy didn’t show at the hotel the next morning. She didn’t answer her phone either. His heart was in his throat. Had the Lyle family taken her when she called to negotiate that truce? Would the cops find her body, battered and used, on the floor of some cheap hotel room, an empty apartment, a cum-stained mattress in the back of the woods?

She finally called him at noon, just as he was getting ready to head back to Miami. She invited him to her home and poured him a drink even though he told her he wasn’t thirsty. “I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me,” she said.

“I didn’t want them to hurt you,” he replied. “I hope you’re safe now.” “Very,” she said, taking a sip of her own. “I’ve decided to take my family’s business in yet another new direction. Or rather, an old direction. Return to our roots, as it were.”

Now he wanted that drink. “I thought you said you wanted out.”

“Out of my life, certainly,” she said. “I was tired of being a hairdresser. Rike and Sawyer stood in the way of that. I’ve sold the meth portion of the organization to the Lyle family. I thought I’d bring back my family’s brothels. Those Korean girls do great nails and, from what I’m told, give great head.”

He looked at her manicure, wrapped around her heavy crystal tumbler. It was dark red this time, with black tips. Like a dragon. Like a serpent. Like he imagined Eve would have if they had manicurists in Paradise. “You…” he breathed. “You used me.”

She shrugged. “I’m not the one who burned my grandmother’s corpse,” she said. “And I am sorry about Tyler, that really was all Rike and Sawyer. I hope you understand that.”

He wasn’t really even listening, but she continued. “We’re a good team,” she said, reaching out and putting her hand on his. He was too numb to even recoil. “I didn’t use you so much as I auditioned you,” she said. “You’re a natural.”

“I can’t,” he said. “I’ve got a wife, I’ve got students back home, I don’t have the stomach for this…”

“Sure you do,” she said. “You beat two men unconscious and left them to drown. You burned a woman’s body. You’ve got more fortitude than most men.”

Now he wanted that drink more than ever. “And if I say no?” he said. “You gonna kill me? Silence me so I won’t go to the cops?”

“You won’t say a word,” she said. “You never do. You didn’t own up to having Orthwina’s body after your boys pulled a stupid, drunken prank. Didn’t come clean about burning her either. You spun me a story about Tyler making a deal and then you killed two more people to keep that secret. No, Cyrus, I trust you. More than I’ve ever trusted anyone, really. I don’t have to silence you. Your own guilt will do that. And if I’m wrong, well, I’m sure Marcus Lyle will be happy to help me out. I took care of my brothers, after all. An apology for the killing of his man. A blood sacrifice of old.”

She was right. Goddamn it, she was right, and she’d known it from the moment she set foot in the Embassy Bar. “The answer is still no,” he said.

He waited for her to pull out a revolver, to admit that there was poison in his glass, to ring a bell for a man who would come in and snap his neck. But she did none of those things. Instead, she stood, and he stood, and she kissed him on the cheek. “If that’s how you want it,” she said. “The offer will always stand. Give my love to your wife.”

He drove back to Miami. Amy was waiting for up for him when he arrived. “Anything?” she whispered. “Anything about Tyler?”

He held her, savoring the scent of her hair, wishing he could absorb her warmth into the permanent ice block in the middle of his chest. For a moment, he considered coming clean. Unburdening his soul, taking his chance that someone might hear him, believe him, take pity on him for trying to be a good man. But Malloy was right. He wasn’t a good man, in his heart. He was a quiet man. A coward.

“Nothing,” he finally said. “The cops say his case has gone cold.”

Libby Cudmore is the author of the critically acclaimed hipster mystery THE BIG REWIND (William Morrow, Feb 2016) which received a starred review from Kirkus, as well as praise from Publisher's Weekly and Booklist. Her short fiction has been published in The Big Click, the Stoneslide Corrective, PANK, Vinyl Me Please, The Writer and the anthologies HANZAI JAPAN, WELCOME HOME and MIXED UP, as well as the forthcoming anthology BUT THE HANGMAN ISN'T HANGIN': FICTION INSPIRED BY THE MUSIC OF STEELY DAN.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Bar Bet, fiction by JM Taylor

That early in the day, not many drinkers slunk into the dark of the Drinking Hole. In the far corner, cheap-ass Larry Stover nursed his beer so fiercely it was more likely to evaporate than get drunk. At the far end of the bar, Ced surrounded his beer like a fortress. Brown as the walnut bar top, he had a brilliant white scar splashed across his face like he was the missing member of KISS. Molly Finnegan leaned spread-legged with her elbows on the bar, so she’d be the first thing anyone saw coming in. Not that the pose enticed any paying customers for her or for me. It wasn’t worth my while to fill the peanut bowls yet.

I dropped a cricket from the jar into the terrarium and turned to slicing limes, not that many of my patrons got so fancy. I stopped buying maraschino cherries a decade ago.

By lunch time, the place had started to fill up. The only food I sold was bags of chips and pickled eggs, but it wasn’t the cuisine folks came in for. With a television that showed only sports with no audio and a juke last updated when John and June visited Folsom, the Hole is a place for quiet contemplation. Couple years ago, I had to put up a sign in the window, saying “no colors.” At first, it was for the different bikers who come in. Club members got too loud for the rest of the drinkers to stew in peace. But really it turned out to be the young punks in town, the ones who buy into that crap on cable and on-line “news” who think “free speech” means you can say what you want without repercussion.

After the second one got bounced off the floor, I put that sign up. But no sign is going to stop a rising tide. Try it yourself.

So the place was getting busy, but Molly had left for greener pastures and no one noticed when the door opened, shining a spotlight on nothing in particular. I looked up and saw two kids come in. With the light behind them, all I saw was the high and tight hair cuts and squared shoulders like they owned the place. When the door closed behind them, the darkness revealed that one had dark hair and a face covered with acne he should have grown out of five years ago. The other, slightly taller, wore a smirk that begged you to punch it. They both wore white shirts with some triangle logo I’d never seen. But after carding them, I had no real reason to deny them the cheap beers they ordered. But I never lost track of them.

Ced lifted his finger at the same time the kids called for another round. Some say you should prioritize the new faces, try to build your customer base, but I believe in loyalty first. Ced, Larry, even Molly the whore, would always get served before a line of newcomers. I walked past them to deliver Ced’s beer. I should’ve known something would come of it, and maybe I did.

The pimply one spoke up first. He was almost polite, just saying, “Hey, we were first!”

I ignored him. The complaint made me want to ask Ced how his day was. “Not as bad as yesterday,” he said. “Probably better than tomorrow, though.”

Then the other got more forceful. “I thought your sign said no coloreds.”

I locked eyes with Ced, but he didn’t give me any other indication of how he felt about that. I gritted my teeth, took the three steps to their spot deliberately. Along the way, I decided not to discuss spelling with them.

“You’re cut off,” I said. “First round’s on me, so hoof it.”

It’s never that easy to scrape shit from your shoe, though.

“I get it’s not the fifties anymore, we can’t have segregated counters no more, but damned if I’m going to let you serve him before me. I’m an American, for God’s sake.”

“And he’s a veteran, for country’s sake. I don’t deal with your bullshit in my bar. Beat it, fashy.”

I glanced at Ced, who hadn’t moved, except to sip his beer. But he had the beginnings of his own smirk, and I wondered why. The rest of the place was watching me, and I didn’t like it.

Pock-face said, “I just want to know why you think that one’s better than me. I love my country, that’s why we need to keep the undesirables out. We built this country, we fought and died for it, and we don’t need outsiders and illegals sucking off America’s tit.”

“That’s a sick image,” Ced mumbled. I felt the weight of everyone’s eyes shift off me onto him, like at a tennis match. Still, he didn’t move, his elbows gripped by the varnish of the wood.

The boys pushed away from the bar and sauntered over to Ced, one at each shoulder. If he was worried about a two-on-one match, he didn’t show it.

“We didn’t ask for your literary analysis,” the tall one said. “Like he said, we want to know why you think you’re better than us.”

“You serve? All that building and fighting and dying? What branch?”

The pimply one balled his fists. “I’ll show—”

But his friend cut him off. It was only from this angle that he saw Ced’s scars. “What’d you do? Try to bleach yourself like Michael Jackson?”

The two of them laughed like a pair of rabid hyenas, but the air went out the room. I said my customers like quiet contemplation, but I didn’t say they don’t know and respect each other.

“IED,” Ced told him. “Fallujah. Bet you can’t even spell it.” Then he looked at me and grinned. “I can see that you won’t back off, and I don’t want to fight, so maybe we should leave this to Oliver!.”

“Who’s Oliver?” the tall one said.

“No, it’s ‘Oliver!’,” I said. “With the exclamation point.” I showed him the terrarium. The heat lamp burned beneath the liquor bottles, giving them a hellish glow.

“Why’s he called that?” zit-face asked. As if he knew who “he” was.

I checked with Ced, to make sure he was serious. Ced nodded, so I shrugged, unclipped the lamp and moved the glass case to the bar. Except for the sand-colored rocks, a bowl of water, and the grinning human skull, it looked empty. The glass was warm in my hands.

The two punks leaned in close, and a few others looked over their shoulders, but Oliver! was nowhere to be seen. I knew he was hiding in the skull, working on the cricket I’d given him for lunch. I unlocked the lid and folded it back. Then I lifted the skull.

Oliver!’s tail curled up over his head. “Lookit this,” I said, and reached under the bar for the blacklight I kept for checking IDs. I shined it on Oliver! and he changed from black to blue. He held the cricket in his pincers the way Larry held his evaporating beer.

“What the fuck is that?” the tall one said.

“That is Androctonus bicolor,” I said, putting the black light away. “Fat-tailed scorpion. Also known as Oliver!. You want to get technical, he’s an illegal, smuggled over in Ced’s gear. As his name implies, a mixture of colors. He also has a hell of a sting.”

The two boys stepped back. “You’re out of your mind,” the tall one breathed.

“Watch,” Ced told them. He pushed away his beer and reached his right hand into the tank. He hovered over Oliver!, then, in one quick movement nabbed him by the end of his tail. The cricket dropped to the gravel and he arched and snapped in anger.

The circle around Ced and Oliver grew by three feet.

Oliver! writhed beneath Ced’s hand. The arachnid wasn’t pleased at all, and reached in vain towards the fingers that imprisoned him from above.

“What were you saying about who’s better? Ced asked, smooth as silk. “Let’s make a bet. We’ll let Oliver! vent his anger on each of us. Whoever gives up first has to admit the other is the best.”

The smirk came back to the face of the one with the triangle logo. “If that…” I glared at him. “One can take it, so can I.”

“Fuck no,” said pimple boy. “That’ll kill us.”

I shook my head. “Oliver! don’t kill, at least not if you’re as healthy as you look.” I put a rubber-topped glass vial on the bar. “And this is antivenin if either of you passes out. It’ll keep your heart pumping, more or less. This is my place, so I make the rules: if you win, I’ll declare you’re the master race and banish Ced from my establishment. If he wins, you hand over that piece of shit shirt you’re wearing so I can wipe the john with it.”

“Not me,” the first one said.

“No one’s getting this shirt,” smirky said. But he took a seat next to Ced. I gotta give it to him, even as Oliver! dangled near his face, he held his ground.

Ced was whispering something to the scorpion, like he was putting some kind of spell on him. I thought of snake charmers and horse whisperers. He locked eyes with his opponent. Then, without breaking the stare, he tucked Oliver!’s pincers beneath his left hand, held them there tight, and let his tail go. Oliver! nailed him on the thumb.

Ced blinked, as if he’d gotten a mild shock. “Your turn,” he said.

He daintily nabbed the scorpion’s tail and held it out for the other to take. The son of a bitch had turned whiter than even he might have wanted the country to be, and sweat covered his forehead.

“Go ahead,” Ced urged him, with the same conjuring tone he’d used on Oliver!. “He can’t hurt you if you hold him by the tail.”

“Don’t do it, Mitch. Let’s just leave.”

But that seemed only to egg him on. “Lemme have that,” he said. To be honest, he seemed more worried about touching Ced than he did the scorpion.

Once he had the tail, he put the body under his hand, just like Ced had done.

“Don’t hurt him,” I said.

He glowered at me. “Shut up. I won’t kill your pet.”

I shook my head and stepped back. “I was talking to Oliver!”

He held that pose another few seconds. Deciding, I guess, whether he was really going to go through with it. Finally, he let loose.

It looked like he’d been shocked with a live wire. His whole body went rigid and I swear he levitated off the stool. Ced’s hand flashed out and caught Oliver! before he could scuttle away. Mitch’s red-faced friend was crying, the twerp. Within seconds, a bruise the size and color of a football had spread across Mitch’s wrist and arm. Snot poured out of his nose.

“That’s round one,” I said.

“How many rounds?” the friend gasped.

“Until one of them gives in,” I said.

Ced mumbled another spell.

“What’s he shaying?” Mitch said with a husky voice.

“‘Please sir, I want some more,’” Ced told him more loudly. Then he lodged Oliver! under his right hand, took another stab. This time, his nose twitched, but nothing else. Gingerly, he took Oliver by the tail and offered him to Mitch.

He didn’t look too good. The tendons stood out on his neck, and drool streamed out of the corners of his mouth. “I get ish,” he said. “You got shtung so often you’re immune.”

Ced nodded. “Something like that. Let’s see what you got, white boy.”

It took Mitch two or three tries to take Oliver! by the tail, and he grimaced as he put the pincers beneath his swollen hand. But he didn’t hesitate and this time kept his seat, though he howled loud and long enough to drown out half of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” I did the honors and caught up Oliver! once he’d done his thing.

“Another round?” I asked, as if I were offering beer.

“Hit me,” Ced told me, and he let Oliver! zap him.

Mitch was slumped in his chair. I think his partner was keeping him from hitting the floor. But he managed to say, “Pleashe zhur,” with something approaching humor. But it was the humor of the defeated. He swiped at Oliver! twice, three times, then collapsed on the bar.

Ced dropped Oliver! back in his terrarium. The scorpion darted back under the skull to eat his cricket in peace. I replaced the tank on its shelf and reattached the heat lamp.

By the time I turned around, Mitch was half awake again, scrabbling at his shirt. He was honest enough about that. But he needed help just to get his arms over his head. Larry took it and disappeared into the closet we called the men’s room. Meanwhile, I loaded a syringe with the antivenin. I can’t lie, it felt good to stab him with the needle, though less good to hit the plunger.

“Is he gonna die?” the other kid said. He’d lost his shirt, too. I could now cite the “No shirt, no service” rule if I needed to.

“We all do, eventually,” I replied. “So make the best of it.”

Larry came out zipping up his pants. “I left ’em in the urinal,” he said.

Suddenly, there was a line, and not just men: Molly had come back and charmed her way to the front.

Mitch fought to keep his feet. “Thash a lot to shtink abou’,” he said. “You got shum balls.”

“I’d give my right arm to know how you did that,” his friend said as they limped out the door.

Ced shrugged and drank his beer. He took a napkin to the dripping venom on the smooth area along his plastic wrist and thumb, careful not to let it touch his skin.

“I did,” he said, in his snake charmer’s voice.

JM Taylor lives in Boston with his wife and son. His work has appeared in such mags and zines as Thuglit, Crime Factory, Crime Syndicate, Tough Crime, and Out of the Gutter. His novel *Night of the Furies*, was listed in Spinetingler's Best of 2013. He's currently working on a young adult spy thriller. When he's not writing or reading, he teaches under an assumed name.