Monday, July 19, 2021

Disposable Women, fiction by Michael Bracken

Riverview Estates had no river and no view, and the small patch of dirt surrounding each of the West Texas mobile home park’s forty pads could not easily be mistaken for an estate. I once had it all—big house, big car, big office, and big debt to maintain the lifestyle—and I had been lucky to drive away with my Glock, my license, and the clothes on my back when Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations, where I had been vice president of investigations for one of the largest firms of its kind in Dallas, had been shuttered by authorities after the owner had been indicted for tax evasion and other accounting anomalies. With nothing better to do because affiliation with my former employer was job-search poison, I spent my mornings sitting in a folding chair in front of my six-year-old Ford F-150 in the dirt yard outside my grandmother’s mobile home at Riverview Estates drinking Lone Star and watching my neighbors queue up for their ride to work.

Many of them were illegals—Guatemalan, Honduran, Mexican, Panamanian, and others from south of the Rio Grande who came to America seeking a better life and instead wound up in West Texas working twelve-hour shifts for subsistence pay at Chicken Junction’s meat processing plant and who lived four or more to a bedroom, sleeping in shifts. The other residents of Riverview Estates complained bitterly about their new neighbors even as they were bought out and their single-family single-wides were turned into communal housing that brought the park owner greater revenue as sardine-can dormitories than renting the pads on which they were situated ever had.

An old school bus with Quarryville I.S.D. still faintly visible on the side stopped at the end of the drive to collect my neighbors and soon disappeared in a cloud of dust and diesel fumes. An hour later, the bus returned to disgorge plant employees coming off shift, including Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado.

Though she still rented space in one of the communal residences three doors down from mine, Sofia walked directly from the bus to the empty folding chair at my side and dropped into it. I handed her a beer from the cooler between the chairs and asked, “Rough night?”

As she opened it, she said, “Aren’t they all?”

We had met one evening at the Dumpsters, Sofia dropping off a trash bag before queuing up for the evening bus while I made room in my place for more empty beer cans. Then, as she did that morning, she wore steel-toed work boots, faded jeans, a man’s denim work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a blue bandanna that held her shoulder-length black hair away from her face. The evening we met, my hair was as long as hers. I had not cut it since moving into my grandmother’s mobile home, had not shaved in several days, and had not showered in two because I had stopped caring about my place in society.

Good evening,” I said that night, making polite conversation.

Sofia hesitated so long I wondered if she spoke English. Then she smiled. “It is, isn’t it?”

She walked away before I could respond, and she told me later she hesitated because I was the first norteamericano at Riverview Estates to greet her with anything other than a racial epithet or other form of verbal abuse.

By the time we finished our beer, the other bus riders had disappeared into their respective residences and the school bus had returned to the meat processing plant where it would remain until the next shift change. Sofia took my hand and led me into my grandmother’s mobile home. She removed the bandanna from her hair and let it fall unfettered to her shoulders. She smelled of offal, but that didn’t stop me. I pulled her into my arms, kissed her deeply, and began unbuttoning her denim work shirt. She pulled away and held the shirt closed with one hand. She pressed the other hand against my chest. “I need to shower first.”

I’ll be waiting.”

Though I still wore my hair long, I bathed and shaved every morning before Sofia returned from the plant. I stripped, slipped into bed, and listened to her through the thin walls as she sang an unfamiliar tune barely audible above the sound of the shower. Soon she turned off the water and I heard her moving about the bathroom. Then she stepped into the bedroom and dropped the white bath towel with which she’d covered herself.

My gaze followed the towel to the floor and then traveled back up the length of her body—long legs, slender hips, firm breasts—her skin the color of honey and speckled with water droplets. Her towel-dried but still damp black hair framed her oval face, and her hazel eyes were deep pools beneath long black lashes and thick eyebrows never plucked. She wore only a small, gold, heart-shaped locket on a thin gold chain, a gift from her mother she never removed. She joined me in the bed, and her full lips found mine.

Afterward, as she lay in my arms, we talked. That is, Sofia talked because I had little to say about my evening spent drinking beer and watching boxing with Red Barker, manager of Riverview Estates. She told me about Juanita, who dreamed of moving north to Minnesota where her brother worked as a short order cook; about Carlos, who sent nearly every penny he earned back to his parents in Xalapa; and about Skeeter, the supervisor who treated Sofia and her co-workers as if they were no better than the hundreds of cattle they butchered and processed each shift. I wasn’t paying attention because I’d heard much of it before.

Then something I’d not previously heard caught my attention.

Three women have disappeared since I started working at the plant,” Sofia said. She had worked there for three months before we met, and we had been together almost six. “Nobody knows what happened to them and nobody cares. They just got replaced.”

I mumbled something non-committal, certain that employee turnover at the meat processing plant was greater than three every ten months if the ever-changing faces queued up for the bus twice a day was any indication.

Sofia turned, snuggled against my side, and soon drifted to sleep. When I felt certain I would not wake her, I slipped out of bed, pulled the sheet over her, and dressed. After I ensured the drapes allowed no stray daylight into the room, I closed the door behind me. Some mornings we prepared breakfast together, eating eggs scrambled with chorizo and served on warm flour tortillas, but that morning I was on my own and ate stale Rice Chex downed with a fresh bottle of Lone Star.

Then I went outside, folded up the chairs, and moved the cooler against the concrete steps. As a child visiting my mother’s mother, I had roamed the rolling hills around Riverview Estates, running through the prickly pear, juniper, and mesquite while playing Army and Cowboys and Indians with the children who lived in the mobile home park. I had climbed the one live oak still clinging to the edge of the property, and I had explored the vehicles—two Ramblers and a Chrysler—abandoned in the wash.

The children I had known then had all moved on, one way or another, but their homes had not. Several, much like my grandmother’s, had been there since the park opened and were clearly showing signs of age. Only one—the park manager’s residence—was less than twenty years old. As her only grandchild, I’d inherited my grandmother’s single-wide and all the plastic-covered furniture and doily cozies inside, when she passed away several months after I’d lost my home to repossession and my debts had been discharged through bankruptcy. Her death also meant I received a small but steady income from shares in a family oil trust I inherited because my mother had preceded her into the grave.

You busy?” I turned to see Red standing behind me, holding his battered gray toolbox. “I got a problem over to the washhouse. Thought I might get you to give me a hand.”

I glanced back at my grandmother’s mobile home. Sofia would be asleep for several hours, I owed Red for snaking my sewer line a few weeks earlier, and I really had nothing better to do than keep him company. He had been manager of Riverview Estates since before the first home was drug into the park, and he had been my grandmother’s closest friend—perhaps even her lover—during the last few years of her life. I handed him a beer from the cooler, took the toolbox from his hand, and walked with him to the washhouse on the far side of the park.

Just took possession of the Swanson place,” he said as we walked. “The family wanted out from under it the moment old man Swanson died, and they took the first offer. The family already cleared out everything they want, so I just need to give it the once over before we look to fill it.”

More employees for the plant?”

Long as the plant keeps employing illegals, they’re going to need a place to sleep,” he said. “Nobody in town wants anything to do with them, so where else they going to go?”

I didn’t have an answer for Red, so I said nothing.

We had reached the washhouse by then. I helped Red pull one of the washing machines away from the wall so he could determine why it had abruptly stopped while agitating a load of Mrs. Medeiros’s unmentionables.

* * *

Even though Sofia still paid her share of the rent for one of the sardine-can dormitories, she rarely returned to it. Instead, she spent most of her time away from the meat processing plant with me in my grandmother’s mobile home. She packed away the doilies, fifty-state shot glass collection, and photo gallery of long-dead relatives, and she rearranged the furniture to take better advantage of the afternoon and early evening sun. Though we did not always have breakfast together, we never missed dinner. We ate around six, finishing just before she had to queue up for the bus ride to the plant for her eight o’clock shift.

One day, after she found my holstered Glock and my laminated private investigator’s license in my underwear drawer, she asked about it and asked why I did not work. I told her.

Did you do these bad things?”

I shook my head. “That I was an officer of the corporation is enough to taint my name. No one will hire me.”

You can start over, yes?” she asked.

Maybe someday,” I said. “Not today.”

She tilted her head to the side and examined my face. “Are you happy, Cade?”

I suppose.”

Are you happy with me?”

I realized what she was asking, so I pulled her into my arms. I stared deep into her eyes, brushed a long lock of black hair away from her face, and kissed her. “Of course,” I said between kisses. “Yes. You’re the best thing in my life.”

Then one morning, she did not return.

I watched as more than three dozen weary people filed off the bus, and I did not become concerned until the bus drove away. Sofia had never missed the bus. In English and broken Spanish I asked the few bus riders who had not yet disappeared into their homes if they had seen her. They remembered her riding with them to work the previous evening, and a few remembered clocking in with her, but none knew what happened after that.

Where is she?” I demanded. “Why didn’t she get on the bus?”

Suddenly, none of them understood me.

No hablo ingl├ęs,” they said as they shook their heads and hurried to distance themselves from me.

I walked to the mobile home Sofia ostensibly shared with seven other women, three of whom worked her same shift. I knocked on the door until one of them finally opened it as far as a safety chain would allow. “Where’s Sofia?”

She backed away from the door, and I heard them consulting with one another before a different woman came to stare at me through the gap. “Sofia’s not here.”

I know that,” I said. “She wasn’t on the bus this morning. Where is she?”

You aren’t the only gringo who likes Mexican girls. Maybe you do not satisfy her, Mr. Wilcox. Maybe she found someone else.”

The women behind her giggled as she closed the door.

As I returned to my grandmother’s home, I pulled my cellphone from my pocket. I called the meat processing plant and asked the woman who answered if I could speak to Sophia Maria Montoya Delgado.

She said, “I’m sorry, sir, employees are not allowed to take personal calls on company time.”

Sofia’s off shift,” I said. “She would have clocked out at eight.”

Then she’s already gone home.”

Well, she isn’t home,” I said, my voice rising in frustration. “I want to know if she’s still there.”

Employees are not allowed to remain on the property after they clock out,” said the woman. “Therefore, she’s not here.”

What happens to employees who miss the bus?”

Sir, if Ms. Delgado missed the bus, then she likely is in for a long walk home,” she said. “Thank you for calling.”

She disconnected the call before I could ask another question.

I went inside, took my truck keys from the kitchen drawer, and then moved the folding chairs and cooler out of the way. Soon I was driving toward the meat processing plant. I took the most direct route, a road that skirted the northwest corner of Chicken Junction, and I drove all the way to the plant’s main gate without seeing anyone walking along the side of the road. The guard stationed at the gate was even less helpful than the woman on the phone.

I returned home, driving slower than before so that I could look down each intersecting road and stopping at the one convenience store along the route to see if Sofia had, perhaps, stopped there. She hadn’t.

After parking my pickup in its spot beside my grandmother’s mobile home, I climbed out and checked the cooler beside the porch. The beer inside was still cold, so I opened one and sat on the concrete steps.

Something wrong?” Red asked from behind me. When I turned, he continued. “You tore out of here like a bat out of hell.”

Sofia didn’t come home this morning.”

He helped himself to a beer from the cooler and sat on the step beside me. “That’s what got you all het up?”

She’s never missed the bus.”

First time for everything.”

One of the women she lives with implied that she’d gone off with someone else.”

You think that’s a possibility?”

I shook my head.

Then it’s likely you’ll hear from her soon.” Red slapped my knee. “In the meantime, I got something to take your mind off your worries. There’s a problem with the plumbing at the Swanson place and fixing it’s more than a two-handed job.”

I stared at the Riverview Estates entrance and the road beyond, and saw no one approaching from either direction. I finished my beer and stood. “Let’s get your toolbox.”

* * *

Old Man Swanson’s mobile home had more than a plumbing problem, and Red kept me busy all day helping him prepare it for rental. I returned home near dinnertime, showered, and stood in the kitchen wearing nothing but my boxer briefs and an undershirt while I stood before the open refrigerator. I had not eaten dinner alone in more than five months, and I did not know what I should prepare.

I finally settled on corn tortillas wrapped around leftover carnitas Sofia had prepared the previous weekend. As I sat at the kitchen table eating, I watched the door, expecting her to rush in at any moment. She had less than an hour before she had to queue up for the bus, and she had never missed work.

After I finished eating, I sat at the table nursing a Lone Star until I heard the bus come and go. I nursed another beer and waited until eight-thirty before I called the meat processing plant. A different woman answered, and I asked, “Is Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado working this evening?”

I’m sorry, sir, we can’t put calls through to employees.”

I’m not asking to talk to her,” I said. “I just need to know if she’s clocked in for her shift.”

I’m sorry,” she said again. “I can’t provide that information.”

You can’t or you won’t?”

Thank you for calling,” the woman replied. Then she disconnected the call.

I left my phone on the kitchen table, walked to the bedroom, and went through Sofia’s things. She did not have much. At one end of the closet hung a pair of jeans, a pair of black dress slacks, four men’s denim work shirts, two frilly white blouses, and a lightweight jacket. I checked all of the pockets and found them empty. At the bottom of the closet were a pair of sandals and a pair of low-heeled black pumps. In her one dresser drawer were a white soft-cup bra, a half-dozen pairs of white cotton underwear, four pairs of heavy woolen boot socks, and four blue bandannas. In the bathroom, in addition to her toiletries, I found her make-up bag filled with assorted eye shadows and lipsticks, and a small jewelry box containing five pairs of earrings, three necklaces, two bracelets, and two keys—a door key and a padlock key. Anything else Sofia owned would be in the mobile home three doors down, and the roommates she no longer stayed with were unlikely to let me in to examine her things.

I spent a restless night. Though I did not often sleep with Sofia due to our opposing schedules, I missed her lingering presence in our bed, the way she left the covers cast aside when she arose late each afternoon, the peculiar arrangement of the down pillows that she often wrapped around her head, and the faint scent of her perfume and her sweat that clung to the bed linens.

The next morning I waited until my neighbors boarded the bus at seventy-thirty on their way to the plant for the eight o’clock shift. The employees who clocked out at eight would not return until eight-thirty, so I had one uninterrupted hour to visit the mobile home three doors down. I used the door key I’d found in Sofia’s jewelry box to let myself in. The sparsely furnished living room contained a couch, a recliner, and a console television, all of which appeared to have belonged to the previous owner. The kitchen table and matching chairs were made of chrome and yellow Formica. I passed through both rooms and down the hall to the bedrooms. Each bedroom contained two twin beds and four padlocked footlockers, none of them labeled. I tried the padlock key on each footlocker in turn, finally opening the fifth one.

Inside I found more clothing and a bundle of letters written in Spanish. A quick glance revealed they had all come from the same woman in Puerto Vallarta, and my limited ability to read Spanish—which allowed me to order from the menu at Taco Bell and little else—led me to believe that woman was her mother.

I put everything back as I had found it and slipped out.

Red caught me closing the door as I stepped onto the concrete steps. “Sofia ain’t back yet?”

I shook my head. “She didn’t run off, though. She left her things behind.”

I thought she’d moved in with you,” Red said, nodding toward the mobile home I had just exited.

Not quite,” I said. “She left a few things here.”

By then, more than twenty-four hours had passed since Sofia was due to return home and more than thirty-six hours had passed since I had last seen her.

I drove into town, past the locally owned businesses lining Main Street, past the town’s only bank, and past the limestone castle that was home to the meat processing plant’s owner. I found the police department occupying half of a building that also contained the city’s administrative offices. To the officer behind the counter, a man near as old as Red, I said,    “I’d like to report a missing person.”

He looked me over, taking in my long hair, black T-shirt, and blue jeans before he pulled a form from a stack of forms. “Who?”

Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado.”

When did you last see her?”

Getting on the bus to work yesterday morning.”

And where was that?”

Riverview Estates.”

He put down his pen. “Are you trying to report a missing wetback?”

I had not heard anyone use that term in years. When I didn’t respond in the negative, he glared at me and tore the form in half. “They ain’t missing if they ain’t supposed to be here in the first place.”

* * *

I returned to the meat processing plant and was refused entrance by the same guard who had turned me away the previous day. I visited the town’s emergency care clinic, Catholic church, and several other places known to serve Chicken Junction’s growing Hispanic community, finding few people who admitted to knowing Sofia and none who had seen her since our Saturday visit to the grocery store and to Dairy Queen. I drove the bus route between Riverview Estates and the plant, and then I drove alternate routes, exploring possible shortcuts someone on foot might have taken.

Tired and frustrated by the time I returned home early that evening, I stood at the bus stop and questioned every one of the night-shifters when they queued up for their ride to work. They could not escape my attention but my badgering gained me little information. They all remembered riding to work with Sofia two evenings earlier, the same few remembered clocking in with her, and one remembered walking with her until Skeeter Henderson pulled Sofia aside. None remembered seeing her since then, not on the line nor during dinner break nor at the bus stop for the trip home at the end of their shift.

I even tried to question the bus driver, but he would have none of it. Red saw what was happening, and when I started to climb into the bus after all the plant’s employees had boarded, he grabbed my arm and pulled me back. “Let these people get to work.”

But—”

The bus driver snapped the door shut.

These people won’t tell you anything if they think you’re going to cause problems for them,” Red told me.

The bus roared away, leaving behind a cloud of dust and diesel fumes.

Red still had a firm grip on my arm, and he pulled me out of the noxious cloud toward his mobile home. Once inside, he calmed me down with a cold beer, and I told him about my experience at the police station.

You’re not likely to get any cooperation from the locals. Most of them resent people like your Sofia,” he said. “And you for sure won’t get any cooperation from her people, either, if you treat them like you did a few minutes ago.”

So, what do I do?”

You find another approach,” he said. “Have you talked to her supervisor?”

I shook my head. Until a few minutes earlier, I had known him only as Skeeter. “Do you have a telephone directory?”

He did, and I flipped it open. The listing for people with the last name of Henderson was two pages long, and it didn’t include anyone who had given up their landline. None of them were named Skeeter.

I no longer had access to the databases I had used as vice president of Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations, but I still had connections. I called Studebaker Johnson, a private investigator working out of Waco to whom I had subcontracted work a half-dozen times over the years. He answered on the third ring. After a few minutes spent reminiscing about the past and glossing over the downward spiral that had taken me from Dallas to Riverview Estates. I told him I was looking for any man named Henderson, nicknamed Skeeter, first name unknown, who resided within an hour’s drive of Chicken Junction.

Stu called back a few minutes later. “I have one—Samuel ‘Skeeter’ Henderson on Huaco Road.”

He gave me Skeeter’s street address and a quick bio. “The subject is a forty-two-year-old Caucasian male, six feet tall, two hundred and forty pounds. He’s a single, never married, high school graduate who rents his home, has one DWI conviction, and his credit cards are maxed out. He has a concealed carry permit.”

The DWI—?”

“—was eight years ago, too far back to cause problems getting the permit.”

I thanked Stu.

Anytime, Cade,” he said.

Red had been listening to me, and when I ended the conversation with Stu, he asked, “What are you going to do now?”

I’m going to take a look at Skeeter’s place while he’s at work.”

I finished my beer, used Google Maps to pinpoint the location of Skeeter’s rental home, and then drove through town, past the limestone castle, and several miles out Huaco Road to a string of aluminum-sided ranch houses that were in no better condition than the mobile homes at Riverview Estates. I parked on a side road and approached Skeeter’s home from the back. The wooden doors of the detached single-car garage stood open, revealing a disorganized collection of junk that prevented the garage’s use for its intended purpose. The inside of the house, what I could see of it through the windows, was in no better condition. Most importantly, no dogs announced my presence.

After I returned home, I cleaned and loaded my Glock, and then spent another restless night missing Sofia. I had been aggressively single while working at Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations, never certain if the women I dated were interested in me or if they were interested in my money and the status of my position. I hadn’t cared, because I used them just as I thought they used me, exchanging one salad-eating, Pilates-addicted bottle-blonde for the next until I could no longer remember their names and called them all “Honey” and “Sweetie” and “Babe” as if I were using terms of endearment and not displaying my own disinterest in their individual personalities.

Sofia had changed all that.

After meeting at the Dumpster, we found other ways to accidentally cross paths until I finally stopped drinking alone every morning and took a cooler full of beer and pair of folding chairs into the front yard so that I could wave to Sofia when she stepped off the bus. She returned my wave, greeting me some days with “Buenos dias” and other days with “Good morning” until one day she broke away from her roommates and came to sit in the chair beside mine. We talked for several minutes before she excused herself and went home to sleep.

This continued for almost two weeks. Then one evening she appeared at my door dressed for work and carrying a grocery sack filled with food. She said, “You’re not eating.”

She pushed past me into the kitchen and began going through the cabinets until she had what she needed to prepare chiles rellenos with rice and beans. She had to rush to make it to the bus on time, leaving me to clean up afterward.

We had dinner together every evening after that, and before long, we were as good as living together. I still did not know what she had seen in me, but she made me want to be a better person. She taught me to stop dwelling in the past and to live for the future, whatever it might bring.

I woke early the next morning, slipped my private investigator’s license and concealed carry permit into my wallet, strapped on my shoulder holster, and then pulled on a leather vest to cover it. Nervous because I had not done any investigating more confrontational than a sharply worded email following my promotion to vice president, I used the toilet a third time.

When I flushed, wastewater backed up into the tub. I didn’t have time to deal with it, so I left it and headed outside. I was unlocking my truck when Red caught my attention.

Going to talk to Skeeter this morning?”

I told him I was. Then I told him about the wastewater in my tub.

I’ll take a look at it a little later,” he said. Then he winked. “Right now, I’m on my way to breakfast with Mrs. Medeiros.”

I left him, drove through a town that had yet to fully awaken, and out Huaco Road again. I parked on the same side road and again approached Skeeter’s home from the back. I was sitting in his kitchen when he arrived home around eight-thirty, surprising him with my presence.

Who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my house?” he demanded as he reached behind his back.

I raised the Glock from my lap. “Two fingers,” I said, motioning toward a chair I had placed on the far side of the room. “Remove your sidearm with two fingers, place it gently on the floor, and kick it in my direction. Then take a seat in that chair.”

Skeeter hesitated, perhaps considering his options, and then did what I asked. After a Glock that was a kissing cousin of the one in my hand slid across the floor toward me, he sat. Sunlight from the window shone brightly on the side of his face, revealing a thin scar on his right cheek. The scar brought back a memory long forgotten and I asked about it.

You break into my house, point a gun at me, and that’s what you ask?” He waited for me to respond. When I didn’t, he continued. “When I was ten, me and another kid were playing in some abandoned cars in the wash behind the mobile home park where I lived. I fell, cut my face on a Chrysler. My mother rushed me to the doctor. Thought I was going to lose my eye, but I didn’t. The kid wasn’t from around here and he disappeared before I came home from the hospital.”

You’re Little Sammy?”

His eyes narrowed. “Do I know you?” he asked. “Nobody’s called me that in years. These days, my friends call me Skeeter.”

I didn’t correct him, but I was the kid he’d been with, and we hadn’t been playing. He had been bullying me, and I had pushed him onto the Chrysler. “Okay, Skeeter, I want to know what happened to Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado. She didn’t come home from work a couple of days ago, and you’re the last person anyone saw her talking to.”

So, you’re the guy who’s been calling the plant and asking about her all over town?”

Word traveled fast. I nodded.

I sent her upstairs,” Skeeter said. “She didn’t return to finish her shift, and I haven’t seen her since.”

Why’d you send her upstairs? What’s upstairs?”

She was a looker, that one. Little heavy on the eyebrows, if you ask me, but an ass to make a grown man cry. That’s what the boss likes.”

What do you mean?”

Every three months or so, he lets the shift supervisors know he needs a new assistant.”

What’re you supposed to do?”

Pick out the lookers, send their names upstairs. If he calls one of ours up, there’s a five-hundred-dollar cash bonus slipped into our locker. Sofia’s my second. The first one was almost two years ago.”

Sofia had mentioned three women missing during the ten months she’d been working at the plant, but Skeeter was telling me there might have been others, at least four a year since— “How long has this been going on?”

I’ve been a supervisor almost eight years,” Skeeter said. “It started before I was ever promoted.”

What happens to the women after they get sent upstairs?”

Skeeter shrugged. “Employees—especially the illegals—come and go all the time. Some quit without notice and never bother picking up their last paychecks, so I never asked.”

Aren’t you curious?”

Curiosity kills,” Skeeter said. “This is a company town. Everybody relies on the plant one way or another, so you go along to get along. Nobody cares about a few illegals. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it’s always been.”

I stared hard at Skeeter for a full minute, but I had no more questions to ask and he had nothing to add. I picked up the Glock he had kicked across the floor to me. “I’m taking this with me,” I said, “but I’ll leave it someplace where you can find it later.”

* * *

Chicken Junction was awake when I drove back through town, and I realized how insular the town really was. Other than the Dairy Queen and a few service stations, no other national businesses had established a foothold. Walmart, H-E-B, and Whataburger, all nearly as ubiquitous in Texas as Dairy Queen, had no local presence. I was out the other side of town and almost home when I was passed by a fire engine with lights flashing and sirens blaring.

I caught up to it when I reached Riverview Estates and saw my grandmother’s mobile home ablaze. The park entrance was crowded with the fire engine, two police vehicles, and two pick-up trucks belonging to neighbors who had been unable to get through to their homes. I parked on the roadside just beyond the entrance and walked in. The neighbor on one side of my grandmother’s blazing mobile home was spraying his with a garden hose, and several dozen park residents, clumped together by primary language were milling about watching the firefighters unspool hoses too late to save my home. While the firefighters brought the blaze under control and local police kept the spectators well back from the scene, I searched for Red.

None of my neighbors had seen him.

Then one of the firefighters came out of the charred and half-melted aluminum husk of my grandmother’s home and announced to the others, “We got a body.”

I saw one of the police officers smile, but it was fleeting and I doubt anyone else noticed. I edged closer, remaining as inconspicuous as possible until I was close enough to the officer to overhear his conversation when he used his cellphone. He said, “It’s done. He won’t be asking any more questions.”

A moment later he added, “Of course it was him. Who else could have been in there?”

I backed away, knowing Red had been snaking the sewer line inside my grandmother’s mobile home when it went up in flames. As soon as I reached my truck, I drove away, leaving Riverview Estates and Chicken Junction in my rearview mirror. I didn’t stop until I reached Quarryville, and I sat at a picnic table outside a smokehouse that had once been a Conoco station, picking at a lunch plate of chopped brisket and potato salad.

When Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations closed, my house repossessed, and most of my possessions lost prior to bankruptcy proceedings that cleaned out the last of my savings and investments, I thought I’d lost everything. I was wrong. What I lost were possessions. Replaceable things. People were not replaceable.

I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. Not then. Not there.

After finishing lunch, I looked for a place to hole up, and a horse-faced woman rented me the far-end unit at Quarryville’s six-room motel. The room was nothing special and had last been decorated in the 1960s. Unsure if the primary color was orange or tangerine, I avoided looking at it by staring out the window at the only vehicle in the parking lot. Mine.

After a few minutes, I called Stu Johnson.

You must be working again,” he said.

This is something personal,” I told Stu. Then I told him what information I needed.

I’ll see what I can get.”

While waiting for his return call, I explored Quarryville. There wasn’t much to the town, but I did find a pawnshop, where I purchased a thin pair of leather gloves and an inexpensive gun cleaning kit. Back in the motel room, I stripped, cleaned, and reloaded the Glock I had taken from Skeeter. I had just finished when my phone rang.

What do you have for me, Stu?”

Just like you figured,” he said. “Directly or indirectly, the Potter family owns that town. A family trust owns the meat processing plant, the bank, and the mortgage company. Through various subsidiaries it controls most of the rental property in and around town, as well as two of the largest cattle ranches supplying beef to the plant. The patriarch, H. F. Potter, just turned ninety and no longer takes an active role in decision-making, as best I can tell. His son Crawford runs things and has for many years. Crawford had some problems when he was younger, transferred twice from prestigious Texas universities, and finally graduated from a diploma mill. The family spent good money to make Crawford’s problems disappear, but the Potters weren’t the big fish in a little pond at Rice and Baylor like they are in Chicken Junction.”

So what happened?”

I might be able to get specifics if I had more time,” Stu said, “but there were allegedly several incidents involving inappropriate conduct with co-eds.”

What are we talking about? Stalking? Assault? Rape?”

Yes. Probably. Campus police didn’t get involved back in the day unless things were seriously out of hand. Hell, most rapes went unreported, and the few that were, were blamed on the women. Men like that don’t change, especially men who feel empowered by money and social position.”

They became the kind of men who trolled their workforce for new assistants.

Crawford is a fifty-five-year-old Caucasian male, five feet seven inches tall, weighing in at a buck ninety. He’s never married. Other than allegations of inappropriate behavior from his college days, there are no blemishes on his record.”

That’s what happens when you own the police force.”

Do you want me to dig deeper?”

I think that’s enough on him,” I said. “What did you find out about the castle?”

I’m not certain it qualifies as a castle.”

Have you seen it?”

Only pictures. The two-story, eight-bedroom Potter Mansion, designed in the Romanesque Revival style, was the first limestone building in the county when it was constructed in 1871. The home has been renovated several times since, but there is no record of any significant changes to the original floor plans. I’m emailing them to you as we speak.”

That it?”

There’s one other thing,” Stu said. “Have you surveilled the house?”

Not yet.”

I gave it the once over on Google Street View. There are bars on one of the bedroom windows. What’s in that room that’s so important people need to be kept out?”

Or kept in,” I said. “Which bedroom?”

Second floor, northwest corner.”

I thanked him for all the information and ended the call. Then I settled in to wait until nightfall.

* * *

I drove several times around the Potter Mansion, saw no security of any kind because a man who thinks he controls everything doesn’t think he needs it. Crawford’s arrogance would be his undoing, and I decided to take the direct approach. I parked at the curb, walked up to the porch, rang the bell, and waited until a man fitting Crawford Potter’s description answered. “You Mr. Potter?”

Who are you?”

I’m a dead man walking.” I revealed Skeeter’s Glock, showed Crawford the business end, and pushed past him.

You must be Mr. Wilcox,” he said. He remained poised as if he thought he was in control of the situation. Maybe he was. “I think someone’s going to get fired for this.”

Take me upstairs, to the bedroom in the northwest corner.”

If you insist.” He led me up the sweeping staircase and to the bedroom. A combination lock secured the door.

I motioned with the gun. “Open it.”

I think you’ll be disappointed,” Crawford said, but he spun the dial on the combination lock until it unlocked. Then he unhooked the lock and pushed the door open.

You first.”

He stepped into the room and switched on the light.

No one rushed into my arms, screamed for help, or greeted me in any way, because there was no one in the room. Except for the lock on the door and the bars on the windows, nothing seemed out of place until I saw the marks on each of the canopy bed posts where restraints of some kind had worn groves into the polished wood.

What were you expecting, Mr. Wilcox? A harem of Mexican girls?”

A glint of reflected light caught my eye, and I saw Sofia’s locket under the edge of the bed, the chain broken.

I returned my attention to Crawford. “Where’s Sofia?”

Your Sofia was a good-looking woman, a real firecracker in bed.” Crawford’s eyes twinkled and his mouth twisted into a grin I may never forget. “Did you really think she’d still be here after you started asking questions?”

Where is she?” I repeated.

The smile twisted further. “Do you have any idea how much meat gets processed at the plant? Do you think anyone notices a little extra now and then?”

My stomach turned over, and I shot him. I didn’t think twice, just squeezed the trigger until the clip was empty. Then I dropped Skeeter’s Glock, picked up the locket, and hurried toward the stairs.

Crawford?” I heard an old man yelling. Crawford’s ninety-year-old father was somewhere in the house. “Crawford, what’s all that noise?”

I drew my Glock from the shoulder holster, thinking his father may have phoned the police, and it led the way down the stairs and across the foyer.

Crawford, answer me!”

I eased out the front door, pulled it closed behind me, and was in my truck rolling out of town before the first patrol car responded.

I drove from the Potter Mansion to Riverview Estates. I used Sofia’s key to enter the mobile home she had shared with seven other illegal immigrants, none of whom were as beautiful as her. The four day shifters present when I bulled my way in all woke and began screaming at me in Spanish. I couldn’t understand exactly what they were calling me, but I understood the attitude. I ignored them, marched down the hall, and opened Sofia’s locker. I grabbed the letters from her mother, returned to my truck, and headed toward El Paso, intending to cross into Juarez.

As I drove, I phoned Studebaker Johnson. I didn’t tell him what I had done, but I did tell him what I had learned. Texas Rangers, Immigration, the FBI, the USDA, and other state and national agencies would all be interested, and I knew he could use his connections to direct their attention to the meatpacking plant and the surrounding town.

When I finished, I told Stu he might never hear from me again, and he wished me good luck. When we finished, I turned my phone off and threw it out the window so I could not be tracked.

I had a long drive ahead of me, all the way to Puerto Vallarta. I had to return the locket and tell Mrs. Delgado that her daughter was too beautiful to live.

I wouldn’t cry until I did.


Michael Bracken (www.CrimeFictionWriter.com) is the author of several books and more than 1,200 short stories. His crime fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories, and many other publications. Additionally, Bracken is the editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and he has edited several anthologies, including the Anthony Award-nominated The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Out to Pasture, fiction by Margaret Karmazin

Edward Michelson’s body lies in the mud in Dan Thorpe’s field where Black Angus cattle roam at their pleasure. Three of the cows have come to see what is going on, leaving their heavy footprints in the muck, one stepping on Edward’s ankle and bending it awkwardly. His denim jacket and plaid lumberjack shirt are soaked, making it difficult to see what is blood or mud.

Lieutenant Char Perez and Sergeant Maurice Booker stand in the morning rain, looking down at the body. The county medical examiner, Robin Sloan, and one of her assistants have retrieved a wallet and I.D. from the victim’s jeans pocket, and Char’s gloved finger now taps the driver’s license. “Just turned thirty-five,” she says to Booker. “What a place to be murdered.”

“One place is as good as another,” he says. “And a bullet is better than some ways of going. What else is in the wallet?” 

Char passes it to him, and he checks the rest of its contents. “A permit to carry a concealed weapon, not unusual in these parts, social security card - dumb of him to carry that, three credit cards - Visa, Lowes, and Home Depot, a CVS card, looks like a house key and two condoms.” He counts the money. “Seventy-nine dollars.” He slips the wallet back into its plastic bag and hands it to a uniformed officer.

“I’m not fond of those cows over there,” says Char, eyeing the fifteen or so Black Angus across the field, huddled under trees by the fence. “Are they temperamental? That one over there is looking at me funny.”

Booker, dressed meticulously as usual in a tailormade suit and raincoat, says, “They don’t have horns.” 

“Yeah, but they could stampede.”

“You’re such a city chick,” he says.

“Like you’re country,” Char retorts. 

Booker, tall with dark brown skin, his hair trimmed close to his head and a diamond stud in his left ear is anything but rural looking. “I still don’t like that particular cow,” she says.

“Three bullets,” says Robin crouched over the body and undoubtedly, thinks Char, immaculate inside her PPE suit, as usual not a chemically treated hair out of place. Not even human, Char often comments bitterly to Booker.

“Are you jealous?” he’ll say, and she never replies to that.  

Can she be? Can a haphazard-looking bisexual with occasional bouts of depression be jealous of a sleekly together hetero woman with a perfect husband in state politics and two perfect kids in private school? Do they even have anything in common to remotely rile Char up? Maybe it’s just Robin’s smooth, blond, shoulder-length bob. Char’s own thick, coarse hair has a mind of its own and most of the time appears as if she has just returned from a weekend of drugs, booze, and sex, which never actually happens, so the look is deceptive. Good thing for those rubber thingies to cram it all into a ponytail. “Just got your hair done, boss?” one of the bad boy cops might occasionally tease, and she secretly wants to demote him but pretends it doesn’t bother her. One thing about her tall, handsome and meticulous sergeant – he never fails to show respect.

“Three bullets?” says Char. 

The body has been turned over before Char and Booker traipsed across the field. It’s now on its back, faded green eyes staring up at the gray morning sky. “He was originally face down,” says Robin. “One in the back, upper left, the other two in the front, side of the neck and directly into the heart.”

“What kind of ammo?” says Char.

“We’ll have to get them out, but from the size of the holes, I’d say .22. Pretty close range.”

“A woman’s choice,” Char mumbles, and Booker looks up.

“I don’t know about that,” he says. “I’d go more for a .38 in that area.”

“Who would use a .22 nowadays anyway?” says Char. “Not a choice that comes to mind when you want to take somebody out. A light choice, though not going to knock anyone over backwards when they fire, is it?”

“And for your convenience,” adds Robin, “there’s the gun over there. Or a gun. I’m just assuming. That’s your job anyway.” She stands up and signals to her crew that she is finished and for them to take the body to her examination room.

“The gun? How unusual,” says Char. “I mean for the perp to leave it at the scene.” 

With gloved hands, she picks it up. “I see it was dropped on the way back out of the field. Like the perp shot Michelson here, then turned and as he or she walked to the road, just flipped it over their shoulder.”

“Let’s look at those footprints to see if we can tell if it’s a he or she,” says Booker, who snaps several photos with his phone. “They’re mushy by now, and the grass covers a lot.”

“The damned rain isn’t helping,” says Char.

Booker checks out the gun. “Pretty sure it’s a Smith & Wesson K-22. They started making them again after World War II, but don’t make them now. Stopped in the nineties.”  He opens the barrel. “Three bullets still in here. Not very responsible, leaving something like that in a field. Some kid could come along.”

Char is thinking. “This is making me think the perp was a nervous wreck, not used to violence. So worked up that they don’t think about the risk to others, just want to get rid of the weapon.”

“This isn’t a gun you’d buy on the street,” says Booker. “It was probably in some old guy’s collection.”

Char thinks a moment and says, “Hand the gun over and let’s go talk to whatshisname over there and let the team finish here.”

By the fence next to the road stands a frightened-looking young man. As Char and Booker approach, she asks Booker, “Who do we have here, then?”

Booker consults his pad. “Jesse Villan, age nineteen. Working part-time as a farmworker while attending college.”

“That’s an unusual last name, like “villain.” Maybe it fits, and we have our perp?” Char jokes.

“Sounds French,” says Booker. “Canadian, maybe.”

Jesse Villan is tall and lanky. His gorgeous blue eyes peer through the dark brown hair that hangs over them, which he keeps brushing away. Char often wonders why people put up with hair in their faces. “Let’s hear what happened,” she says to the young man.

He is shaking and crosses his arms to steady himself. “I got here at six AM since Dan had to drive his mother up to Binghamton for some kind of medical thing and went out to check on Marilyn, one of the cows that was acting funny yesterday. We had the vet out, and something was embedded in her leg. So she took it out and told me to check on Marilyn first thing this morning to see if she’s okay. I’m almost out there and it’s raining like a bitch, but I kept going and saw this lump on the ground and I thought, what the hell? I went over, and it’s this mud-smeared body, and holy shit!” He stops because he looks like he’s about to cry.

“Just take your time,” Char says. “Seeing a dead body is upsetting. Don’t worry, just give us the details.”

The rain suddenly stops, and the sun peeks out behind some clouds. The cows slowly leave the trees by the fence and wander toward the south end of the field. The team has moved the body to its truck and set up tape around the scene. Whether this will keep the cows away is anyone’s guess but they’re taking samples and footprint casts. 

“Well,” Jesse continues, “I-I got closer to look, and then I saw the blood and he wasn’t moving, so I called 911.”

“You did good, Jesse. Now I need to ask you, do you personally know Edward Michelson?”

His face blanches. “Ed? That’s Ed? Yeah, I know him. Oh my god. Why is Ed out there in the field?”

“Well,” says Booker, “that’s what we want to know too.”

“Tell us everything you know about Ed,” says Char.

Jesse puts his hands into his pockets, probably still trying to steady them. “He’s an old friend of my boss, Dan. They knew each other from school.”

“Dan Thorpe, according to our information, is forty years old, and Ed was thirty-five. School friends?”

“Um, yeah, I don’t know,” says Jesse. “You’d have to ask him.”

They take down Jesse’s contact info for himself and Dan Thorpe’s cell number and return to the station to sort things out. 

Dan Thorpe answers two hours later while driving back from Binghamton. Hopefully, hands-off, thinks Char, as she decides it’s not a good idea to tell him what has happened while he’s driving. “We need to talk to you as soon as you get home,” she tells him. By the time they arrive at his farm again, he has taken his mother to her apartment and heard what happened from a very rattled, and at times, incoherent Jesse. 

“I can’t believe it,” are his first words when Char and Booker walk into his kitchen. The floor is muddy in spite of the mudroom at the back, and a rifle lies across the table along with boxes of ammo. It seems obvious that Dan has no woman living in the place by the looks of it and he is not nervous about exposing his weapon to the police.

“Hunting?” says Booker, eyebrows raised. He moves to inspect the gun, but Dan does not appear concerned.

“I was just cleaning my rifles, getting them ready. Right now, it’s bow season though. I was planning on doing some of that with Ed, but now. . .”  His face clouds up.

“You mind if I sit down?” says Char. “We’d like to ask you some questions.”

Dan pulls out a chair and joins her. He slides the gun and paraphernalia over, away from Char. Booker remains standing and leans against the counter.

How well did you know Ed?” Dan looks to her like a confirmed bachelor and not one who appeals to her, though he’s not bad-looking. But there is something about him — a set to his jawline and a steely expression in his eyes that she has seen before in hardcore right-wing men. The kind of men who generally don’t like people like her or Booker. 

“I’ve known him since school,” he says.

“There’s a five-year age difference between you,” says Char. 

Booker, meantime, has wandered into the next room.

“I was in the same class with his brother Mike. We were best friends.”

“Were?”

“Mike joined the Marines. He died in Iraq. I got to be better friends with Ed through that paintball place. We still play occasionally. . . well, not now.”

“War games,” says Char. “You’re good at shooting then?”

He sets his square jaw tighter. “A lot of people around here are ‘good at shooting.’ A lot of people hunt, so what? That doesn’t mean I’d have any interest in killing Ed. You can check that gun there and any other gun in the house if you want, be my guest.”

“So you and Ed were regular buddies then?”

“Maybe more in the past than now,” Dan admits. “I don’t have as much time anymore for socializing, not with running the farm and helping my mom. She’s seventy-two and had colon cancer. Supposedly they got it all, but you know how that is.”

“She doesn’t live with you?”

He shakes his head. “No, stubborn old coot. This used to be her and my father’s farm, but she was sick of it, and when he died, she said she was getting the hell out. She lives in an apartment in town.”

Booker stands in the doorway to what Char assumes is the dining room. “So, who would want Ed Michelson dead then?” he says. He wears a certain expression that she has seen on him before when dealing with someone he feels is racist. Dan Thorpe has said nothing that would lead one to think he’s a bigot, but Booker can smell one from thirty feet.

“I don’t know,” says Dan, not looking at Booker. 

Booker, not taking any shit, moves his six-foot-three body closer to Thorpe and says in a tougher tone, “Think about it. You knew Ed Michelson well, then you probably know who his friends are. Give us some names.”

Thorpe rears up a bit and says, “Well, sometimes he stopped in McGreevy’s after work, so he probably knew people there, and he had two women in his life.”

Booker’s pen is poised over his notebook. “Names?”

“Kelly Page. She was an old school friend of his.”

“And?” said almost threateningly.

“Sierra Torres. He lived with her a while back.”

Turns out Thorpe has their numbers, two for Kelly, which Booker writes down.

“Where were you last night?” asks Char. “The medical examiner says Ed was shot between eleven and two AM. Right in your field. If you weren’t the shooter, wouldn’t you have heard the shot?”

 “People shoot around here all the time,” Dan says. “I’ve occasionally heard shots in the night all my life. Best not to go out and investigate. Could be people jacking deer, and that’s the game warden’s problem, not mine. But I wasn’t here. I stayed overnight at Mom’s so we could get an early start-up to Binghamton. Her procedure was at seven AM, so we had to be at the hospital by six.”

“Do you know how to contact Ed’s family?” asks Char.

“His dad left his mother years ago, and he never knew where he went. His mother lives in Clearwater, Florida. I think she remarried. I don’t know her last name. I told you about his brother.”

They thank him and leave. “We need to get word to his mother,” Char says. She calls Linda Styles, her best “uniform” to handle that.

It doesn’t take long for Booker to check out Dan’s visit to Binghamton General, and he and his mother were indeed there, though of course, they couldn’t confirm what she was there for.

“Let’s do Kelly Page next,” suggests Char. The number she calls first is apparently a work number, the office for the local PennySaver, a weekly rural classified.

“She’s out on rounds,” the woman who answers says. She gives Char Kelly’s cell, which she already has. “What is ‘out on rounds’?” Char asks.

“Selling and renewing ads,” is the answer.

So Kelly can be anywhere in the country right now, Char figures, but calling the second number, it turns out that Kelly is only fifteen minutes away in the town of Hawago. “How about we get lunch there,” suggests Char.

Booker grunts an affirmative while writing something on his pad.

Kelly tells them to meet her outside Kruger’s, a grocery store in a little mall with a CVS, liquor store, and beer outlet. They spot her leaning against her red Toyota Rav4, a tall woman with long, streaked blond hair and navy slacks, a white top and a gray blazer. She is attractive and gives off an aura of almost military-like command. 

Char and Booker introduce themselves, and Kelly nods her hello. Char watches her face while Booker tells her about Ed. Kelly bends forward, hands on her thighs, and shakes her head. “No, no,” she says, her voice cracking. When she stands back up, her eyes are wet. “Not Ed. Oh, God. What happened? Tell me what happened.” She seems genuinely upset, but Char does not trust anyone in the universe other than Booker. She has watched too many liars.

“What was your and Ed’s relationship?” she asks. 

“Friends,” Kelly answers, her voice shaky. “We’re old friends. From high school.”

“Did you ever go out?” asks Booker.

She wipes at an eye. “Well, not romantically.”

“You weren’t interested in Ed romantically?” persists Booker.

She hesitates and flips a piece of hair that has fallen in front of one eye. “Not anymore. Maybe in high school, a bit, but I got over that real fast.”

“Why?” says Char.

“Oh, there just wasn’t anything happening,” Kelly says. “We weren’t like that. More like brother and sister.”

“You were in the same class at school, right?”

She nods. 

“Where were you last night between eleven and two AM?”

“Home. My neighbor was over and left around tennish, and I still had some work to do, but what really happened was that I drank another glass of wine and was out like a light.”

“Another glass?” Char says.

Kelly takes on an embarrassed look, but Char feels it’s put on.  

“Yeah,” Kelly says, “sometimes I have two glasses when I should keep it to one. Doesn’t always make for good sleeping because you wake up a few hours later, but amazingly, I didn’t.”

“What does your job consist of, by the way?”

“I sell ads for the PennySaver and two newspapers.”

“Are you dating anyone?”

An expression of pain flashes over Kelly’s face, gone in a microsecond. “Not now,” she says.

“Have you ever been married?” persists Char.

 “No, not yet.” Kelly makes an effort to laugh off the question.

“Okay,” says Char. “If we need you, you’ll hear from us. Oh wait, do you own a gun? Maybe have a permit?”

“I do have a permit to carry, yes,” says Kelly, “but I never ended up buying a gun.”

“Why those questions about marriage?” Booker asks as he and Char dig into their orders in the diner. Some people stare at them a little longer than usual. They’re in rural redneck territory, and these people rarely see many black men sitting cozily with a white woman. Though should anyone object, Booker, a solid mass of muscle with a black belt in karate and jiu-jitsu could make mincemeat of them in a few seconds. Char secretly would enjoy seeing that. Of course, he is somewhat happily married, so if anyone tries to start anything, he’d probably just show them pics on his phone of his wife and kid.

“I don’t know,” she says. “Just wanted to make sure Kelly Page wasn’t in love with the vic. Maybe a triangle kind of thing?”

Booker grunts as he digs into his burger with tomato, lettuce, and mayo. He doesn’t get the fries like Char but then sneaks a couple off her plate. “Just as long as they’re not the crispy ones,” she says. “You don’t want to ruin your healthy eating streak.”

“Let’s go see this Sierra chick,” she says when they’re done. “Sexy name. Lived with the vic for a couple of years, so she might know him better than anyone.” 

Sierra Torres works for a realtor and, fortunately is in the office when they arrive and not out showing properties. She is twenty-seven, short and compact, with wavy brown hair to her shoulders and flashing dark eyes, someone who knows she is sexy and how to play it. 

“I’ll bet she was a majorette in high school,” Char whispers to Booker, who responds with, “Not a cheerleader?”

“No, not preppie,” says Char. 

Sierra motions to two chairs in front of her desk, where clients usually sit and the cops sit down.

“I know why you’re here,” she says immediately. Dan called and told me about Ed.” She shakes her head. “I can’t believe it. He wasn’t the kind of person to get into trouble or anything. And it was a day after his birthday. How awful is that?”

We noticed that. Just turned thirty-five,” says Char.

“By ‘get into trouble,’ what do you mean?” asks Booker.

“You know, like hanging out with the wrong kind of people.”

“Are there many of those around here? Seems like a quiet rural area.”

Sierra smirks while sharpening a pencil. “Don’t let it fool you,” she says. “Where are you guys from, Scranton?”

Neither Char or Booker answer that. “We heard that Ed hung out at McGreevy’s occasionally?” says Char. “Any wrong kind of people there?”

“There are,” she says, “but smart locals avoid them.”

“Was Ed smart?”

“That’s debatable,” she said. “He had a little run-in once with the son of the owner, Zack Meade. The owner isn’t anyone named McGreevy – that was like fifty years ago. I don’t know for sure what it was over. That was after we stopped living together, me and Ed. But Zack left town. I heard he lives in Alaska now and has a good job in the oil industry. I think he even got married.”

“Why did you stop living together?”

She shrugs. “Oh, differences in style, I guess. Ed wasn’t into things I like. He didn’t care about sprucing up the place or going interesting places. He never wanted to take a trip anywhere good, just to drive up to his cousin’s cabin in New York State. I wanted to go to the islands or take a cruise. He didn’t like to read, and we never agreed on what to watch on TV. Also, he’s almost eight years older. You know, differences in what we like, music, movies, that kind of stuff. Besides, there was Dan.”

Char sat up straighter. “What about Dan?” she says.

A look flits across Sierra’s face like she might have said something she shouldn’t have. “Well, I mean he kind of has a thing for me. Even though he’s way older than me. It’s almost creepy.”

She’s getting herself in deeper, Char thinks, glances at Booker, and sees he is thinking the same thing. “So, what you’re saying is that Dan wasn’t happy when you and Ed were together. And maybe that put a strain on his relationship with Ed?”

“Well, no big deal. I’m not implying that Dan would hurt Ed or anything. I told Dan, Ed or no Ed, that I am not interested in anything other than friendship. So, he wouldn’t have any reason to be pissed at Ed. Besides, Ed and I broke up over two years ago.”

“Where were you last night between eleven PM and two AM?”

“What? You think I shot him?”

“How do you know that’s how he was killed?”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, Dan told me, duh.” She paused. “Actually, I had a friend over last night.” She smirked a little.

“You mean a man? He stayed over?”

She smiled.

“We’ll need his name and number,” says Booker.  

“Interesting about Dan having a thing for Sierra. Puts a new light on things,” Char says to Booker once they’re in the car.

“She asked me out,” he says.

“Who, Sierra? When?”

“While I was getting the number. You walked away.”

“What is she, a nympho?” says Char with distaste. 

Booker smiles, which never cracks his face. He is a close-to-the-chest person. “I’m irresistible, what can I say?”

Except to your wife, Char thinks. The woman is hardly ever home since their one kid, a boy, won a scholarship to a fancy private school. Supposedly, she represents some cosmetic firm but Char doesn’t know if she actually brings home any money to speak of. She feels that Ailene Booker doesn’t fully appreciate what she has, but of course Char never expresses this to her sergeant. Maybe he’s okay with everything though she suspects not.

“You know,” she says, “I forgot to ask Sierra something. I’ll be right back.” And she gets out of the car before Booker has a chance to respond. 

“Excuse me,” she says, “one more thing,” enjoying her Columbo moment. 

Sierra’s phone is next to her ear and she looks up with annoyance but ends the call. 

“Ed’s friend Kelly Page. What was the deal there?”

Sierra loses the annoyed look and takes on an avid expression. “Oh, she’s eternally in love, or was I should say, with Ed. She was like a fly buzzing around his head. I could’ve gotten jealous but I never did. I just felt sorry for her.”

 “So you’re saying that Kelly definitely had a romantic interest in her old schoolmate? And yet they never were a couple?”

“Well, I think he took her to their senior prom. But I know for a fact that he was never in love with her. She was like a sister or cousin to him.”

“Thanks, you’ve been helpful,” says Char and returns to the car.

Back at the station, she and Booker pay a visit to CSI. Cory Lightfoot has been promoted from Scranton and now runs the new department in Montbleu. They find him excited about the weapon.

“My uncle used to have one of these,” he says, nodding at the pistol laid out in parts on his worktable. He gave it to my aunt, told her it was a weapon she’d be able to use, lightweight and not a hard recoil, but she said the aim was off and could never hit a target. She did keep it in her nightstand, though, probably not loaded. Anyway, this is a Smith & Wesson K-22. Nothing like it registered in this area now, but that doesn’t mean anything. My guess is it never was registered. The user probably had it handed down from a relative. Dropping it in the field afterwards like that is very Cosa Nostra, isn’t it? It was wiped clean.”

“Well?” says Char.

“It was definitely the murder weapon. Assuming it was murder. I mean, maybe the vic was attacking the perp and they had to defend themselves.” But he laughed, figuring this was not likely. 

“I’m going to ask a few of the farmers if they knew of anyone who owned an old .22 like that,” says Char.

“But,” counters Booker, “why farmers? Could’ve been someone from Hawago or any of the towns around here, including Montbleu.”

“You’re right,” says Char. To Cory, she says, “How’re things going on the footprints?”

“Red Wing men’s size nine and a half from the 1990s most likely. A distinctive chunk missing from the tread on the right foot.”

“Men’s,” says Char.

“But a small size for a man,” Cory points out. “A woman, even one with size eight feet could wear heavy socks and manage with those. The fact that they’re roughly twenty-five years old would lead one to think-“

She breaks in. “That the boots had belonged some someone’s father or other relative, and the perp kept them.”

“Correct. So it sounds like maybe the person is a relative – son or daughter or grandchild or married to such, of an old farmer who has probably since died and left this stuff in the house.”

“Well,” says Booker, “that might apply to Dan Thorpe. He grew up on his farm and runs it himself now. Probably some old stuff in there. Did you notice if he has small feet, Lieutenant? Sierra’s stayover friend checked out, by the way. Unless they were both in on it.” 

“We’ll keep him on ice then,” says Char. “I did notice that Sierra’s feet are quite small, like the rest of her. So she’s not the wearer.”

She and Booker find Dan in one of his barns talking to the visiting vet about some of his cattle who were just diagnosed with IBR. “We need to bring them into the barn right now,” says the vet, a large, middle-aged woman wearing heavy boots of her own, about size nine, Char estimates. She glances at Dan’s feet and sees that they are large, possibly even a twelve.  He is wearing what looks like relatively new L.L. Bean clodhoppers.

She motions to Dan, who reluctantly excuses himself to the vet and walks over. “Just a couple of questions,” says Char. “Won’t take a minute. Does Kelly Page spend time at your house? Did she ever take or borrow any clothing from you?”

He looks at her like she is nuts. “Clothing?”

“Boots, for example.”

He impatiently shakes his head and glances back at the vet. “Look, we have a problem here, and I have to-“

“We understand,” says Booker, moving closer. “Just answer the question.”

“No, Kelly Page never took or borrowed any boots from this house.”

“That you know of,” says Char. 

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I think I might run into Kelly like once a year if that. She was Ed’s friend, not mine. There aren’t any old boots in my house anyway, except for two pairs of mine, and as far as I know, they’re in the mudroom. Go look.”

They thank him, do just that and things are exactly as he said. Two older pairs, size twelve. “Of course, there could be more somewhere else,” says Booker, “but what’s the point?  We can see he keeps the place pretty empty, so it’s doubtful he has a bunch of old crap stored away. A hoarder he is not.”

“One more thing,” says Char. She motions to Dan, who once again has to leave the vet. It looks like Jesse, the farmhand, is starting to bring a few cows into the barn for her to start the procedure on their eyes.

“What?” says Dan with clear annoyance.

“I heard that you maybe have a thing for Sierra Torres. Is that true?”

His face reddens, but Char is not sure if it’s from embarrassment or anger. “That little whore? She likes to imagine every man for miles around has the hots for her when in reality, they’re more likely wary of her. She’s known for playing mind games and using men for whatever she can get. I warned Ed about her a long time ago, but he had to find out for himself before he believed me!”

“You’re saying Ed dumped her and not the other way around then?”

“Well, I don’t know who said or did what, but it ended. “I’m not really interested in other people’s private lives.”

“So you’ve never had a relationship with her?”

“Hell no,” says Dan. “I like women more my own age if I see any at all. Frankly, I’m too busy. I don’t really have time for a relationship. Takes all my time and energy to run this farm.”

Somehow, Char believes him. “You called her though. To tell her about Ed.”

Now Dan looked pissed. “Well, I felt she had a right to know. That’s the only reason.”

“I think we should visit Kelly Page’s place,” Char says to Booker once they’ve left. “She owns a condo in Montbleu, not far from the courthouse. We can also check in the station and see if Cody has anything new.”

“Or Robin while we’re in town,” says Booker, referring to the medical examiner and knowing he’ll get an earful from Char.

“Mmmmmm,” mumbles Char, but she ends up following her sergeant to see the hated medical examiner. “What’s up, anything?” she barks at her nemesis.

Robin looks up from the body she is working on, an obese man of about sixty, and nods toward another table, where Ed Michelson lies under a sheet. Smoothly, she sets down the tool she is holding and walks to Ed’s table where she pulls back the covering.

 “He didn’t put up any fight, no bruises on him, nothing notable under his nails. I imagine he was surprised when the perp drew his/her gun. Unless he was forced at gunpoint to move that far into the field and then he might have tried to disarm the perp unless it was a larger male than himself. No sign of that though. What were they doing in the field? Late at night in a pasture with cows around. It didn’t start raining till morning but still. Apparently, no one was afraid of the cattle, leading one to suspect that both parties grew up familiar with them and farms in general. I’d say the vic did not expect the attack. The attacker shot two times from about five feet away, Ed spun around, they shot him once again in the back and he fell face down and expired.”

“Okay, then,” says Char gruffly, “thanks.”

Once outside, Booker says to her, “Tell me again why you hate her so much. You sure don’t hide it.”

“I guess she’s everything I’m not,” says Char. She doesn’t like this too personal talk, even if it’s with Booker.

“And you’re everything she’s not,” Booker retorts. “Ever think of that?”

They were getting on dangerous ground.

“Just saying,” Booker continues, “and then I’ll drop it. Some people prefer your type to hers, okay?”

Char nods and is secretly smiling for the rest of the day.

Kelly Page agrees to speak to them in her home on the outskirts of Montbleu after work. They sit in her living room to talk, and as usual, Booker performs his ruse of “needing” the bathroom. The place has two bedrooms and one and a half baths. They already checked the floor plans online. When he returns, he comments on the old rusty windmill head he saw displayed on the kitchen wall. “Couldn’t help but notice,” he says. “I like old stuff.”

Kelly brightens. “Oh, that! Thank you. That was my uncle’s. He kept up my grandparents’ farm after they died. I have a lot of his stuff.”

Char perks up but tries not to show it. “Really?” she says. “I like old stuff myself. Can we see some of it?”

“Sure,” says Kelly, who stands up and motions for them to follow. As they walk through the apartment, she points out various things–a repainted milk can full of dried grasses, a black cat clock with a swinging tail, sawed off pitchforks arranged on the wall by the dining table, and a low metal bucket on a balcony off the kitchen filled with chrysanthemums.

“Nice,” says Char. “Do you still have some of the old farm clothing? Like your grandma’s aprons or something? I always remember my grandma making her pies and wearing embroidered aprons.”

Booker shoots her a look like maybe she is getting too close for Kelly’s comfort, but she bites. “Yeah, well, not so much from Grandma since my aunts took that stuff, but they didn’t want much from Grandpa, so I got some of that. Enough to remember him and those old times.”

“Farm equipment and clothes?”

“Yeah, basically.” Kelly suddenly takes on a wary look.

Char stands up, looking innocently satisfied. “Well, I think we’re done here,” she says. “You ready, Booker?”

In the car, she says, “She has largish feet, did you notice? I’d say size nine.”

“But why would she shoot him?” 

“I’m thinking it has to do with unrequited love,” Char says.

“But how would she get him into the field?”

“We need the boots before we figure that out,” she says.

A friendly magistrate gets them their search warrant, and they return to Kelly’s place that evening. She innocently opens the door, and her face falls when she sees them.

Booker holds up the warrant. “What are you looking for?” Kelly says, her manner almost cocky, but when they find the boots in her guest room closet, she loses the attitude. 

Char nods at Linda Styles, the uniform accompanying them, and Linda cuffs Kelly as Char reads her rights. 

“What I want to know is why.” Char tells Kelly back at the station.

Kelly hangs her head for a long moment but then grows defiant. “He lied to me,” she says, her eyes flashing. “We made a pact the summer after our senior year. Dan let us and some friends drink up in that field. The cows were mostly in the next field over, just two in that one for some reason, I can’t remember. They were milk cows then. The other kids had gone home; it was almost morning and we’d been partying all night. Ed and I, we made a deal that by age thirty-five, if neither of us were married, we’d marry each other.”

“And Ed turned thirty-five this birthday,” says Char.

Kelly is quiet for a moment as if she is off in some other world, but then snaps back.  “Yeah. I said to him, let’s go to Dan’s field for old time’s sake, and I took the gun–it was my grandpa’s–but Ed didn’t know I had it, of course. We had a couple of six-packs in a cooler, and we drank some and then I brought up the pact we’d made seventeen years ago.”

“It didn’t go as you’d hoped.”

“Well, I had my suspicions that it wouldn’t; why else would I bring the gun?”

“What happened then?”

“He said no, what do you think? He said he didn’t love me, not that way. He said nothing had changed, he thought of me as a sister. A freakin’ sister. You understand, I did everything to make myself hot for him. I lost weight; I can bench press a hundred pounds! My measurements are thirty-six, twenty-five, thirty-six. I am buff! Look at my hair!” She flips it with her fingers. “Halfway down my back, thick and blond! I’ve been told I could model! I can make a man beg for mercy in bed. I’m a gourmet cook; I know how to change the oil in my freakin’ car! I am everything a man should want! But what does that bastard do? He rejects me, like I’m nothing but a clump of cow shit in that godforsaken field!”

She drops her head in her hands.

“He asked for it,” she says between sobs. “After all those years, he asked for it.” 

“You want to get something to eat?” Booker says once they’ve handed Kelly over and finished the paperwork.

His wife must be away again. “A drink,” Char says. “I need a drink first. And then, I need French fries. Nothing else, just those two things.”

“You feel sorry for her,” he says as they climb into his car. They’ll come back for her car later.  

“Yeah,” she says softly, looking out the window. It’s raining again. “Life is lonely.”

He glances at her and turns on the engine.


Margaret Karmazin’s credits include stories published in literary and SF magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Mobius, Confrontation, Pennsylvania Review, The Speculative Edge, Aphelion and Another Realm. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review and Mobius were nominated for Pushcart awards. She has stories included in several anthologies, published a YA novel, REPLACING FIONA, a children’s book, FLICK-FLICK & DREAMER and a collection of short stories, RISK.