Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Town Where Money Grew on Trees, fiction by Michael Bracken

Zipper Hardwick unlocked the door to her uncle’s antiques shop, a ramshackle corner store filled more with junk than actual antiques that shared a common wall with Lefty’s Leftover on a street filled with several similar stores. She remembered visiting Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs as a child but likely never would have visited again had she not inherited the business upon his death three weeks earlier.

Despite earning a B.A. in English, the best-paying position she had been able to find in the seventeen years since graduation was serving drinks at a biker bar in St. Louis, and she welcomed the opportunity to change her life’s direction. That’s why she packed what little she owned in her nine-year-old minivan and drove to southwest Texas to collect the keys to her uncle’s shop from a small-town attorney who appeared surprised that she bothered to make the trip for what he claimed were negligible assets.

He tried hard to talk her out of taking possession of her uncle’s business and to his residence above the store, offering to liquidate the dead man’s assets and cut her a check upon completion of the process. “I can’t see that there’s anything there for a young woman such as yourself.”

“After my father died,” Zipper explained before collecting the keys from the attorney’s desk, “my uncle supported my mother and me, and he put me through college. He must have left something of value.”

“Junk,” the attorney said. “Nothing but junk. You’d be better off—”

She walked out of the attorney’s office without looking back. Ten minutes later, she stood in the doorway of Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs and stared at the dust-covered displays of unidentifiable miscellany, reconsidering her decision. Then, with suitcase in hand, she walked through the shop and up the back stairs to the living quarters on the second floor.

The apartment was only marginally cleaner than the shop downstairs, but more because it had not been attended to since her uncle’s demise than from the obvious neglect suffered by the shop. After acquainting herself with the apartment’s layout and finding both electricity and water service functioning, she spent the better part of the day making the apartment habitable.

She waited until evening to examine the framed photographs lining the hallway between the living room and the bedrooms. Though she had not seen them in years, she remembered many of the fading black-and-white photographs. Those of her father and her uncle, inseparable twins born in the late nineteen-thirties, occupied the end of the hall nearest the living room, and the photographs grew increasingly more recent and in color as she worked her way toward the opposite end of the hall. Halfway along, she found a photograph of her parents on their wedding day.

There were no more photographs of her father after that—he died before she was born—but her uncle had hung several photographs of her as a young girl, with and without her mother, and one in which he appeared with them when she was a toddler, standing in front of Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs and leaning heavily on a cane that did not appear in any photographs taken prior to that. At the end of the hall nearest the bedroom door were her high school and college graduation photos, but nothing later than that because her mother’s passing ended the flow of photographs to her uncle.

She returned to her parents’ wedding photo and stared at it for a long time, wondering how her life might have been different if her father had not been taken from her, and wondering why neither her mother nor her uncle ever told her how he died.


After breakfast the following morning, Zipper dressed in running shoes, slim-fit jeans, and a T-shirt from her former employer, pulled her raven-black hair into a loose ponytail, and walked downstairs to the antiques shop.

She’d been working for several hours, making negligible sense of the sales records she found, and she had her back to the door when a thick-chested man with a nose angled unnaturally to the left slapped a black leather briefcase onto the counter, startling her. When she turned, he asked, “Where’s the gimp?”

“Who?”

“Hardwick. Luther Hardwick.”

“My uncle?” she said. “He passed away three weeks ago.”

“You took over his business?”

“Yes,” she said. “I did.”

“So you know what to do.” He spun the briefcase around, popped the locks, and pulled up the top, revealing a six-inch Subway sandwich and ten banded stacks of hundred-dollar bills. “It’s a hundred grand,” he said, “so give me a receipt and let me get on my way.”

“A receipt for what?”

He narrowed his eyes and then nodded his head at something over her left shoulder. “How about that armoire and the table and chairs next to it.”

“For a hundred thousand dollars?” She had no idea what the armoire, table, and chairs were worth, but she wasn’t about to haggle with the man. She reached for a receipt book she’d seen earlier. “I can do that.”

She asked for his name, thought nothing of it when he identified himself as John Smith, and a moment later handed him a handwritten receipt.

He took the receipt, reached in the briefcase for the sandwich, and headed for the door.

Zipper called to his receding back. “When shall I expect you to pick up your—”

Before she could finish her question, the door closed behind him and he was gone.

Zipper closed the briefcase, slid it under the counter next to the cut-down, pistol-grip shotgun she’d discovered that morning, and made out yellow Sold stickers to affix to all the furniture her first customer had purchased. As she did, though, she suspected the man’s purchases had less value than the stickers she used to identify them.

She locked the front door, returned to the briefcase, and removed one banded stack of hundred-dollar bills. She handled a great deal of cash while slinging drinks at the bar, though most denominations were smaller than those in the briefcase, so she had grown adept at identifying suspect currency. She broke the band, laid several of the bills on the counter, ensured that none of the serial numbers repeated, and then examined each of the first ten bills. She saw nothing suspicious about any of them.

A rap on the front door startled her. She quickly scooped the money off the counter and returned it to the briefcase before opening the door for the elderly gentleman standing on the sidewalk outside. He wore black-framed eyeglasses, had half a dozen gray hairs combed over the top of his otherwise bald pate, and his right arm ended just above the elbow.

He took her right hand in his left. “Little Zippy?”

“Mr. Columbini?”

“No need to be so formal,” he said. “Just call me Lefty. Everyone does.”

“I haven’t seen you since—”

“Since the day I took your photograph before your mother took you up north,” Lefty said. “Your uncle always shared her letters and showed me your pictures. He was so proud when you graduated college, but after your mother passed there weren’t so many letters.”

“No need,” she said. “MySpace and then Facebook, Instagram, and—”

She saw the blank look on his face and didn’t continue listing the social media accounts she maintained. He was likely as clueless as her uncle.

“So, Mr.—” She stopped and corrected herself. “So, Lefty, what can I do for you?”

“I heard about the store’s new owner,” he said. “I never thought it would be you.”

“Why’s that?”

“We have a certain way of doing things around here, that’s all.” His gaze swept the interior of the store before his attention returned to her. “You ever need anything, you let me know. I owe Luther that much.”

“Sure,” Zipper said. “I will.”

He smiled, released his grip on her hand, and turned to leave.

“I do have one question for you,” she said, stopping him. “That armoire over there, with the table and chairs next to it, is it worth anything?”

He looked in the direction she pointed. “Little Zipper,” he said, “what you have in this store is worth a great deal more than you realize.”

Before she could question what Lefty meant, he was gone, and she was once again alone in Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs.


That afternoon Zipper took the morning’s windfall and went shopping, a round trip that put almost a hundred miles on the odometer of her minivan. Though Oroville had a small convenience store with two gas pumps out front, it lacked an actual grocery store. She drove all the way to Chicken Junction, the nearest town with a Walmart, and loaded her van with a month’s worth of staples, a week’s worth of perishables, and more cleaning supplies than she had owned in her entire life. She also purchased new sheets, towels, and washcloths, as well as several vanilla-scented candles she hoped would mask the overwhelming aroma of neglect in the antiques shop.

She made one additional stop before driving home and hauling everything upstairs. She restocked the kitchen, remade the bed, and sat at the kitchen table with an open bottle of Budweiser and her uncle’s handwritten ledgers spread out in front of her. Despite seeing no evidence that anything in the shop had moved in ages, the ledgers provided evidence of a brisk cash business, with large sums of money moving in and out on a regular basis.

Zipper could make no sense of it but felt certain she would soon comprehend her uncle’s bookkeeping process. Until then, she had almost one hundred thousand dollars she needed to keep safe. She put the briefcase under her bed and her uncle’s shotgun on the nightstand.


The briefcase and the shotgun were still there in the morning, so she started her day much like she had the previous day, but with better cleaning supplies. By noon she had finished the counter area. The glass display cases gleamed and the cheap jewelry inside sparkled. After a ham sandwich and a Budweiser, she attacked the grime coating the plate-glass windows fronting the store.

By dinnertime she had finished with the window displays, removing junk and replacing it with items she thought might attract passersby. By the time she called it a night, her hair straggly and her T-shirt soaked with sweat, she felt a strong sense of accomplishment. That evening, Budweiser in hand, she again examined all the photographs hung in the hallway of the apartment, and she again stopped to stare at her parents’ wedding photo and the one next to it of her as a toddler standing with her mother and uncle. The gap in her uncle’s photographic timeline bothered her, but she wasn’t certain why. She took both picture frames off the wall, examined the backs and found nothing tucked behind the photos but cardboard spacer, and reassembled everything with a small addition to her parents’ wedding photo before returning the frames to their places on the wall.

The next few days were much the same. Zipper cleaned and rearranged during the day and spent her evenings going through her uncle’s things. She discovered a box filled with letters from her mother to her uncle and, as she read through them, relived her late childhood. The letters started after they moved to St. Louis, and the most recent was dated two days before her mother’s passing. She was surprised by how much her mother told her uncle—the bicycle accident that left a scar on her left elbow, her winning second place in a high school essay contest, her first date, college acceptance, high school graduation, college graduation, and much more. Growing up, she had never seen any letters from her uncle, but he must have sent a few because her mother sometimes referenced them in her letters, commenting on his health and thanking him for money sent.

A week after her arrival, and for the first time since her arrival, the shop’s phone—a heavy black landline phone—rang. Zipper picked up the handset and practiced one of the slogans she had been contemplating. “Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs. Someone else’s trash could be your treasure.”

“Ms. Hardwick?” said a deep male voice. “This is Thomas LeCroix, president of the Oroville Bank & Trust.”

“What can I do for you, Mr. LeCroix?”

“I understand you had a rather large cash sale the other day,” he said, “and I’ve not seen a corresponding deposit into your account.”

“My account?”

“Your uncle banked with us, and I was expecting that financial relationship to continue.”

“And why is that?”

“There’s a substantial payment due at the end of the week, and if the money’s not in your account to cover it, there’s a hefty penalty.”

“What’s your fee for a bounced check?” Zipper asked. “Twenty-five dollars? Thirty-five dollars?”

“It isn’t the overdraft fee you most need to concern yourself with,” LeCroix said, “it’s what will happen when the collection agency comes for the money.”

Zipper had dealt with collection agents before, when she’d been between jobs and had relied on her credit cards to stay afloat. They talked tough, made a lot of threats, and ultimately had no recourse but to work with her when they learned she had no assets to attach and no wages to garnish.

“I think I can handle a couple of threatening phone calls, Mr. LeCroix,” she told the banker, “so I’ll just take my chances.”

“But—”

Zipper disconnected the call, and it wasn’t until she was nursing a beer with her dinner that evening that she wondered how the banker had known about her sale of the armoire, table, and chairs, and why they still hadn’t been picked up.


The next day, Zipper had another visitor. The sheriff sauntered into the shop, and his gaze swept the store’s interior as he approached the counter. Without introducing himself, he said, “I’m surprised you’re still here.”

She introduced herself. “Zipper Hardwick.”

He glanced at her outstretched hand, nails broken and skin rough from the punishment of cleaning. When he didn’t take it, she slowly lowered her hand.

“Looks like you wasted a lot of effort on this place.”

“Just trying to make it an inviting environment for customers.”

“You think your uncle earned a living selling this shit?” the sheriff said. “You are woefully mistaken little lady.”

Before Zipper could respond, they were interrupted by a young couple bursting through the door. The woman gushed when she exclaimed, “I drive through this town all the time, and I’ve never seen one of these stores open.”

Zipper stepped from behind counter, away from the sheriff, “Welcome to Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs, where today’s trash is tomorrow’s treasure. Can I help you find anything in particular?”

“No, no. We’re just looking, but—” The woman interrupted herself and turned to the man with her. “Trevor, do you see that lamp? Look at that lamp. It would look great in your office.”

The sheriff caught Zipper’s attention, touched a finger to the brim of his hat, and said, “We’ll continue this conversation another day, little lady, if you’re still here.”

After her customers left with the lamp, a set of matching cups, and two metal signs that once graced the walls of a service station, Zipper hung up a Be Back Soon sign, locked up her shop, and walked to Lefty’s Leftovers.

The door was bolted, and no hours were posted, so she pounded on the door until Lefty poked his head out from a back room and recognized her. She waited as he walked the length of his antiques shop and let her in.

“You need to tell me about my uncle.”

Lefty settled onto a stool behind his front counter. “What do you know?”

“Only that he ran Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs my entire life.”

“Your mother ever tell what he did before that?” Lefty asked. “Or what your father did?”

Zipper shook her head.

“They were trying to protect you,” he said. “The less you knew, the better off you were.”

“So tell me now, if you know so much.”

“You know how your uncle got that limp?”

“No.”

“He was shot robbing a bank.”

“Uncle Luther?”

“He wasn’t the only one shot,” Lefty said. “So was your father. Same bank job, only he didn’t make it.”

“No,” Zipper said. “That can’t be true.”

“Look it up on your Google thing,” Lefty said. He told her the name of the bank and the date of the heist. “The police never caught the robbers.”

Zipper paced back and forth in front of the counter. “So, why come here? Why run an antiques store?”

Lefty held up the stump of his right arm. “You ever pay attention to the other store owners when you were a kid visiting your uncle?”

“Not really.”

“You should have. They’re all like your uncle. Like me.” He waved his stump at her. “Armored car job. Barney down at Barney’s Bric-a-Brac, with the one eye? Jewelry store heist. And Marty of Marty’s Memories?”

“Deaf as a doorknob.”

“Lost his hearing blowing the door off a safe,” Lefty said. “Every one of these shops is run by some crook with a disability. It’s like a retirement community. Guys loyal to the organization who can’t do the muscle work get sent here or sent someplace like this.”

Zipper finally put the pieces together. “You’re laundering money. The whole town is laundering money.”

“The convenience store is legit,” Lefty explained. “Otherwise, yes.”

“Shit,” Zipper said. “Shit, shit, shit.”

“Luther pulled a fast one,” Lefty said. “We’re supposed to leave everything to the organization when we pass on. He didn’t. He left his store to you. A few people in the organization thought he’d tipped you off, and that you would know what the arrangement was, but I knew better.”

“My uncle was a crook?”

“So was your father,” Lefty said, “but your uncle outlived the statute of limitations on all the crimes he may have committed.”

“Except money laundering.”

“And he was well rewarded for his loyalty. You, on the other hand—” Lefty paused. “They don’t owe you a thing, and they have no reason to believe they can work with you.”

She thought about the briefcase under her front counter next to the cut-down shotgun and decided she needed to return to her shop.

That night she stared hard at the photographs of her father and her uncle, imagining what might have driven them to a life of crime. She had no answers, but she had a laptop computer and she spent the next hour learning what little she could about the bank heist Lefty claimed her father and uncle had pulled off. The job had involved two inside men and a getaway driver and had culminated with a shootout between the robbers and bank guards before the robbers escaped. They were never found.


Zipper was alone in Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs the morning two men the size and shape of small dump trucks pushed through the front door. She stood behind the counter watching as they approached.

“Welcome to Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs, home of the dickering diva,” she said. “Help you gentlemen?”

“You Hardwick?” asked the bigger one.

“I am,” she said. “You must be here to pick up the armoire.” He glanced at the other man. “We’re here to pick up something, but it ain’t no wardrobe.”

The shotgun was under the counter between the briefcase and her purse, and Zipper wrapped her hand around the shotgun’s pistol grip.

“You had a payment due Friday. We ain’t received it.”

“And?”

“We come to collect.”

“And if I don’t pay you?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Why? You planning to drop my body down an abandoned oil well somewhere?”

He shrugged. “You wouldn’t be the first.”

The smaller man stepped to the side, stretching the distance between the two men so that she could not see them both without turning her head. She kept her attention on the man standing on the other side of the counter, tightened her grip on the shotgun, and rested her finger on the trigger. A slight squeeze would blow out the front of the counter and fill his crotch with birdshot and splinters.

Lefty stepped through the front door, a .9mm Beretta in his left hand pointed at the smaller man. “You don’t want to do that, Diesel.”

“Morning, Lefty,” said the bigger man. “I didn’t think you crawled out of bed this early.”

“Thought I should check on my new neighbor when I saw your truck out front, Ace.”

“Ms. Hardwick here seems to have a cash-flow problem,” Diesel said. “Money went in, but none came out. We came to—”

“I know what you came for,” Lefty said, “but let’s not do this today.”

“You don’t want to get sideways with the boss, Lefty.”

“I’m eighty-seven years old,” the old man said. “What the fuck do I care?”

“Another time, ma’am,” Ace said as he nodded to Zipper. Then he motioned to his partner. “Let’s go, Diesel.”

Lefty kept his weapon pointed at the two men as he stepped aside to let them exit. After their truck drove away, he turned to Zipper. “You have any idea what those two planned to do to you?”

She pulled the shotgun from under the counter. “I worked in a biker bar,” she said, “so it wouldn’t be the first time I shot a man.”

Lefty laughed. “You’re more like your uncle than I would have thought.”

“You want a beer?”

When Lefty said he would, Zipper locked the front door. She flipped the sign to Closed, grabbed the shotgun, the briefcase, and her purse, and led him up the back stairs. A few minutes later, they sat at her kitchen table nursing cold bottles of Budweiser. The briefcase leaned against her chair, but the shotgun remained on the counter where she’d placed it next to her purse and her laptop computer before reaching into the refrigerator for their beer.

Lefty told Zipper about her uncle. “There isn’t much a gimp and a one-armed man can do for fun, especially in a town like this,” Lefty said, “so we spent a lot of nights sitting at this table or at mine drinking, telling stories, and making plans for the future. Your uncle’s stories were mostly about you.”

“Me?”

“He wanted more for you than he ever had, than your mother ever had,” Lefty explained. His Beretta lay on the table next to his sweating beer bottle. “That’s why he paid for your college.” “I’m guessing he was none too proud of my career choice.”

“The biker bar? He knew all about it. He even reached out to a guy who knew a guy to make certain you were never bothered by any of the lowlifes hanging out there.”

Zipper thought back to the time she shot a biker trying to rob the bar. The night didn’t end with the arrival of police, as she expected, but with the man’s disappearance and a rather thorough cleaning of the floor where he’d bled out.

“Things are different now,” Lefty said. “Your uncle can’t protect you from the grave.”

“But you did.”

“I didn’t do it for you,” he said, “and I likely won’t have a chance to do it again. Those boys we ran off today will come back unless you deposit that money in the bank.”

“I can’t,” Zipper said. “I spent some of it fixing this place up.”

“How much do you have left?”

“Ninety-six and change.”

Lefty snatched his Beretta from the table top and leveled it at Zipper, making her wish she hadn’t left the shotgun on the counter. “Lefty, I—”

“Duck, Little Zippy,” he commanded, and she ducked. Lefty continued, “You can come in now, Sheriff Cathcart, but do it nice and slow and keep your hands where I can see them.”

From her position half-under the table, Zipper turned and saw the sheriff step carefully into her kitchen, his hands held up to shoulder level. He had climbed the back stairs without her hearing his ascent.

“Don’t cross between us, Little Zippy,” Lefty said, “but I think you’d best get your shotgun.”

Zipper did as instructed, and she leaned against the counter with the shotgun in her hands as the two men talked.

“You really don’t want to be in the middle of this,” the sheriff told Lefty.

“You come all the way up here to tell me that?”

“I came up here for the money.”

“And if you don’t get it?”

“Ace and Diesel will, and they’re none too happy with your interrupting them earlier.”

Lefty used one foot to push the briefcase from under the table. “It’s a little light,” he said, “but I can make up the difference.”

Sheriff Cathcart lowered his hands and bent to reach for the briefcase.

Zipper followed his movements with the barrel of the shotgun. “You sure you want to do that?”

“Let him take it,” Lefty said.

The sheriff lifted the briefcase from the floor, straightened, and touched the brim of his hat with his fingertip. “Ma’am.”

After Cathcart left, Zipper said, “The sheriff isn’t going to be happy when he opens the briefcase. It’s filled with nothing but crumpled paper.”

“The way you’ve been guarding it, I thought—”

“So did he. So did those two goons who stopped by earlier.”

“He’ll come back,” Lefty said, “and he’ll bring Ace and Diesel with him.”

Zipper patted the shotgun. “I’m ready.”

“Our beer’s getting warm,” Lefty said as he motioned toward them with the barrel of his Beretta. He laid the pistol on the tabletop and reached for his beer. “We should finish it.”

When Lefty lifted his beer to his lips, Zipper joined him at the table. She turned her chair so she could watch the staircase, laid the shotgun across her lap, and reached for her beer.

“So,” Lefty asked, “where is the money?”

“In a safe deposit box in Chicken Junction,” Zipper said. “I didn’t drive all that way just for cleaning supplies.”

“And the key?”

Zipper smiled and stared across the table at Lefty. “I’m not entirely certain whose side you’re on, Mr. Columbini. You might be helping me because of some obligation to my uncle, or you might be after the money yourself.”

“Ninety-six Gs isn’t enough to get myself sideways with my employer.”

“And yet, here you are.”

Lefty smiled. “That picture in the hall of you and your mom and your uncle,” he said. “I took it the day before your mother took you up north.”

Without realizing it, Zipper glanced down the hallway.

“I found an old Brownie and a tripod in the back of the shop,” he explained. “I took several photographs of the three of you that day, but that’s the only one in focus.”

Zipper said nothing as Lefty took a deep breath before continuing. “Perhaps there’s something else that needs to be in focus,” he said. “The day Luther was shot and your father killed, I was the getaway driver. I was young and it was my first job. I was a minute late, and your uncle and father were shooting it out with the bank guards when I arrived. Maybe things would have turned out different if I hadn’t been a greenhorn, but Luther never said a bad word about me, and he never told your mother I was the driver.”

Zipper felt the building reverberate when the front door of the shop was kicked open, but she said nothing.

“A couple of years later I was with a crew that blew open an armored car. A jagged piece of debris severed my arm and I was sent here to take over the shop right next to your uncle. I hadn’t known your mother was pregnant when your father died, and I couldn’t look her in the eye whenever we were together. I think that’s why most of the photos were out of focus. So, yeah, I owe something to your mother, if not to Luther.”

“They’re here,” Zipper said. “I can hear them downstairs.”

Lefty took a deep breath. “Then you’d best get out of here. Give me the shotgun and go.”

“But—”

“In the back of the bedroom closet is a hidden doorway. It opens into my bedroom closet. Go through it and close it behind you. In my nightstand drawer is a manila envelope with everything you need to access an offshore account Luther and I shared. There’s a million two in it that we set aside for our retirement. With the ninety-six Gs you’ve already glommed onto, you should be able to disappear.”

“I can’t leave you—”

“You don’t have a choice. Give me the shotgun and get out of here. I’ll keep these guys occupied long enough you should be able to get away.”

They heard footsteps on the back stairs.

“Now!”

Zipper shoved the shotgun across the table, grabbed her purse and laptop computer from the kitchen counter, and ran down the hall. There wasn’t time to collect all her things, but she paused long enough to grab two photos from the hall—her parents’ wedding photo and the one of her as a toddler standing with her mother and uncle in front of Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs. She ducked into her closet, went through to Lefty’s closet, and closed the hidden door behind her. She found the manila envelope exactly where Lefty said it would be, and she was on her way down his back steps when she heard the roar of her shotgun and several additional gunshots. She didn’t stop to look back but ran out to her minivan and drove away from Oroville. An hour later, she retrieved the key hidden in the back of her parents’ wedding photo, collected the cash from her safe deposit box in Chicken Junction, and left her minivan in the Walmart parking lot. Half an hour after that, she paid cash for a motorcycle and a helmet and headed west. Lefty’s actions had led to her father’s death, but they had also given her the chance to live. Zipper had no idea how far or how long she could run from her family’s past, but she owed it to Lefty to find out.


Michael Bracken has written several books, including the private eye novel All White Girls, and more than 1,300 short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories, and in many other anthologies and periodicals. Additionally, he’s edited several anthologies, including The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods. He lives, writes, and edits in Texas.

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