Monday, November 22, 2021

Mile 4, fiction by Ken Brosky

The man is only twenty feet back.

Jordan risks a look over his shoulder even though the snow is deep, even though his cross-country skis are no longer parallel, even though being off-balance could send him tumbling into the snow. He has to see. He has to know. His heart races in his chest, reverberating through the thick down of his jacket. Sweat from his forehead soaks into his winter hat. His breaths are caught by the scarf, wetting it, and the cold winter air fights back by freezing as moisture to the soft fabric.

He’s not on a ski trail anymore. 

And still, the man follows.

Think, he tells himself. In his head, his voice is calm; he’s anything but calm.

The forest of red pines is dead silent. Light from the full moon sneaks through the canopy, casting a blue polka-dot glow over the blankets of snow. Pine needles lay atop the undisturbed powder. Jordan has to turn his cross-country skis a few degrees to avoid one of the thousands of tall pines; he does this carefully. He can’t afford to trip and fall. He has to keep his distance. From his hunter.

But who is hunting him?

He thinks back to the start of the evening, after parking in the little lot and putting on his skis, after standing in front of the trail map and making a decision. Nordic Pines, 6 miles, hilly, intermediate skill. It had been a challenging six miles, great exercise, and he’d lost the sun about halfway through. Beautiful night skiing.

The man had been waiting for him at the end of the trail, where it snakes around a small log cabin-style warming lodge next to a parking lot at the entrance to Cathedral Pines State Forest. The man must have followed Jordan here. Must have seen Jordan put on his skis and make his way to the Nordic Pines trail. Must have waited the entire three hours for him to complete the loop.

The man had simply been standing where the trail turns into packed snow at the edge of the parking lot, empty because it was well past dusk and only Jordan would be stupid enough to ski at night, but it was such a beautiful evening that he couldn’t resist. He can never resist. These quiet, cold nights call to him. Temper his good instincts. Tempt him to set aside his caution.

The man. At least, Jordan thinks it’s a man. He’s wearing a heavy black coat, a pair of black snow pants, gloves, ski goggles, a black neck warmer, a black hat. No physical features, except for one crucial truth: Jordan has already skied 6 difficult miles, and this man has not.

He can feel it already in his hamstrings. In his shoulders, every time he digs a ski pole into the snow. In his throat, which complains about every icy breath that goes in. At first, he thought he could turn around and outrun the man. But no matter how fast he went, the man matched his speed. Trailing him like a shadow. 

Think! Jordan didn’t survive this long with luck. He’s always been a planner. He’s always carried extra hand warmers, an extra energy bar, a fully charged phone. All those things to ensure he could survive the unexpected on an evening ski run. Nothing useful now. Hand warmers and food he can’t reach without stopping, pulling off his fat mittens and reaching into his pocket. A phone he can’t use so deep in the woods.

 The memory of the man putting on his skis and stepping casually onto the ski trail directly ahead of Jordan … haunts his mind’s eye now. The deliberate action. The dead silence. The terrifying realization that hit Jordan immediately: this man was here for him.  

Even if he could have somehow taken his skis off, even if he--pushing fifty now--could have somehow gotten past the man, he knew without a doubt that his car had already been sabotaged.

So he made the only decision that might save his life: he turned back onto the Nordic Pines trail. At first, the man followed at a distance, and Jordan felt a surge of adrenaline--the man can’t ski well--but then the man grew closer and closer. At mile 4, Jordan broke off from the trail. Into the woods, east, back toward the town of Lakewood. Come out of the forest right at the edge of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket. Still, open another two hours. Plenty of people around. You don’t follow someone to an empty forest if you’re willing to kill him in public. 

You don’t do it at night.


Every time he inhales, the air attacks the wet scarf. Every exhale, his warm breath tries to thaw the ice that’s begun to form. And despite the exertion, although he seems to be gulping oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide at the rate of a marathon runner … his scarf has begun to freeze.

He knows you. The words ring in Jordan’s head with each hiss of the skis. He. Knows. You. He. Knows. You.

His triceps bear the brunt of the pole work now, giving his sore shoulders a reprieve. Where the snow is deepest, the poles stab down through soft cotton. When he shifts his weight, the skis sink an extra few inches (thunk-thunk-thunk), and his leg muscles burn from the exertion. He imagines himself a nordic soldier, fleeing a contingent of Russians. He wonders why the man hasn’t shot him in the back yet. Surely the man has a gun.

And a thought occurs to Jordan: what if his pursuer hasn’t planned this out?

He risks another glance over his shoulder. The man is still behind him, no more than twenty feet. Has he closed the distance at all? Maybe a little. Taking his time. A morbid, humiliating chase, the kind of thing that belongs in an episode of Fargo, not real life. This isn’t how you take someone out. Jordan knows.

His tongue feels like sandpaper. He has a water bottle in his pocket, but grabbing for it would mean stopping or continuing skiing with one pole for balance. Both bad options. If it gets worse … if it comes down to it, he’ll take the risk. But not yet. Not until he absolutely needs it. 

Not until he reaches the Crossroads.

When did he make the mistake? He’s been so careful. Fifteen years now. Fifteen years since he moved to the little north Wisconsin town of Wentworth and purchased the go-kart track with cold, hard cash. Safe, because Jordan did his homework on the owner. Knew the owner could write off the loss on the business--which clearly hadn’t been operating for at least two years, judging by the weeds growing in the cracked asphalt and the wasp nests inside the old Michelin truck tires stacked like bumpers along the sides of the track. 

The attached mini-golf course was a total loss. But the track only needed a few thousand dollars worth of repairs. The carts? Jordan fixed those little gas-guzzlers himself. He paid on credit, got it open the following spring, and a trickle of customers showed up. A few locals, some families visiting relatives--mostly parents and grandparents who lived in one-story homes around Maiden Lake. Jordan was careful with the daily sales. Only laundered a few hundred dollars a week in the spring. Then, in the summer, it was a few hundred dollars a day. Cash hidden under the floorboards of his house. When the economy was good, “sales” went up. When the economy was bad, he let the go-kart business suffer along with it. He never made a suspicious deposit.

Something he did recently, then. Something that raised a red flag somewhere. But what? The only time he spent cash was when he went golfing at the local country club, because a round of 18 with a cart was a little less than a hundred dollars; paying with a hundred-dollar bill was entirely normal. He snowmobiled in the winter with a group of assholes who were almost as dirty and skeezy as the people he knew in his old life. But he didn’t get drunk. He’s never gotten drunk out here--a small price for the peace of mind of knowing you never spilled your secrets after that second pitcher of Miller Lite. Jordan had always been a loud, obnoxious drunk anyway. And the snowmobilers had a few AA members so splitting a pot of boiling hot coffee after three hours of tooling around wasn’t suspicious.

What then? How did this bastard find him?

Ice forms on the tips of Jordan’s eyelashes, making them heavy. He can’t help it: he looks over his shoulder again. The man is definitely closer now. Jordan feels his weight shift precipitously when his left ski sinks deeper into the snow than he was expecting. His heart leaps out of his chest; the only thing that keeps him from losing his balance entirely is his left ski pole held like a brace by the sore muscles in his left shoulder. His clavicle screams in pain. He has to keep moving. Can’t change his pace.  The snow is thicker here, where a wind has slipped into the forest and created drifts. His skis disappear under the powder. The ends of his poles sink deep. Can’t slow down.

“What do you want!” he shouts. In one of the tall pines ahead, a snow-white owl takes flight, soaring low over the undisturbed snow between the pines.

Silence. Only the rhythmic squeak of waxed skis through dry snow.

Jordan has to turn to make his way around a copse of oaks. They grow close together where the earth dimples. Their gnarled, arthritic limbs twist in every direction, reaching out at violent angles. He has to be aware of his direction. He has to go around the oaks, try to get back on a path bearing due-east. 

He has to get to the Crossroads.

An interaction, maybe. Something he said to someone in town, maybe got repeated on Facebook or some other social media network, was somehow seen by the wrong person. Six degrees of separation and all that. Lots of Chicago and Milwaukee transplants up here in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, especially during the summer. It’s not hard to imagine someone might know someone who has a passing affiliation with Juan or Cam, Jordan’s old crew.

His mind reels through the years of interactions. Close calls. Tense moments. It’s hard to get in trouble in a little shit town like Lakewood unless you’re looking for it, or you’re drunk at a bar. Much harder, though, to keep your secrets. How many times over the years has he come close to letting a little bit slip, just for the thrill of seeing the look on a person’s face? A surly teenage cashier at the supermarket. A nasty comment from a barfly. That damn group of white boys who hang out at the custard stand all summer and blast rap music and pretend they’re “hardcore.”

I robbed an armored truck.

It’s not just to see their faces change. It’s the rush of confession. It’s the confidence that comes with knowing you got away with it. No need to say how easy the robbery actually was. No need to go into any detail about the meticulous planning that went into it. Just that one sentence, sitting on the tip of Jordan’s tongue more times than he can count. 

Did he utter it, ever, even once? Did he mention some random robbery in passing, act strange about it? Joke about it with his golfing buddies?

No. No, he’s been so careful.

What about the other part?

What about the murder?

“Tell me what you want,” Jordan huffs out. His scarf is solid. Ice rubs against his chapped lips. The forest has grown denser, darker; he has to regularly turn, adjust his mental compass, try to turn back in the same direction. 

He looks over his shoulder.

The man--if it is a man--has closed the gap another five feet. Only two car lengths away now. The man is not breathing heavily. There’s no doubt now that he could catch up to Jordan if he really wanted. This realization calms Jordan. He knows now the man is tiring Jordan out. 

But what the man doesn’t realize is that he’s running out of time.

Just a few hundred yards ahead, Jordan can see where the forest thins out. Where old power lines run north to south.

The Crossroads.

There were victims. There was the company, Algenon Armored, although their insurance covers losses. So there’s the insurance company, too. And of course, Juan’s unsuspecting coworker who was driving the armored vehicle when a car crash--planned by Jordan at the perfect intersection--made it easy for Juan to recommend the best detour down a side street that led to the Milwaukee River. Just as they’d planned it, the armored truck blew a flat, and Juan’s partner pulled over. The third player in the operation, Cam, was parked nearby. Juan broke protocol by getting out of the vehicle to check the flat. Cam put the empty gun to Juan’s head, forced the driver out, made them both load up his car with cash. The car turned right at the intersection of Fifth and Academy Drive. This was where their plan was ingenious: transfer the money to Jordan’s car. Cam had no criminal record. No registered gun. By the time the police caught up to him, he was clean. Juan sat for questioning and swore in an affidavit that Cam wasn’t the gunman, that the getaway car looked similar but definitely newer. Contradicted his terrified partner. Cam was released.

The trio stayed quiet. The money sat in the trunk of Jordan’s car, in his garage.

Next to a bag full of clothes and documentation for a new identity.

“Cam?” he calls out. “Cam, that you? Finally find me after all these years?”

No answer from the man. 

Jordan laughs, coughs out cold air. “I never planned to kill you, Cam. I knew you could keep your mouth shut!”

No answer.

But Jordan is getting closer. He can see the worn trail of snow a hundred feet ahead. No trees in his path. Just a straight shot now and a prayer.

“I hid it,” Jordan had told Juan when it was time to divvy up the money.

Juan was angry. That wasn’t part of the plan. Not their plan, at least.

“There were some break-ins,” Jordan explained. “All over my neighborhood.”

Juan seemed to relax in the passenger’s seat. They were driving to the south side of Milwaukee, windows down because the AC in Jordan’s car was broken. Juan started talking about his daughter’s violin lessons, how this money would ensure he never has another fight with the little hellion about the cost again. No more skipping a couple weeks while he reloads his bank account. That’s the problem with a crew: they can’t wait to spend the money. Raise suspicion. Get people talking. And when people start talking, that’s when police close in.

“Cam’s meeting us?” Jordan had asked. He remembers his voice sounding hoarse. Guilty.

“Yeah. He’ll be a little late. Said we should just hold up for him.”

Not part of the plan. They were supposed to drive together to get the money. Jordan took First Avenue to Milwaukee’s harbor district. Along the Milwaukee River, where condos were springing up like invasive weeds. Still a few old, empty factories. An old concrete batch plant, their destination. Juan would have been pensive, except he knew Jordan’s life story.

What better place to hide the money than in the foreclosed building of the family business?

Jordan maneuvered the car around an old chain link fence surrounding the building. He parked in the shade of the steel cement bin. Just ahead was a large building where Jordan had spent his entire childhood running around the offices and high-fiving his father’s employees. 

The lock appeared broken. Jordan feigned surprise. Juan cursed and hurried inside. 

Jordan didn’t waste time. Didn’t want Juan to know the pain of betrayal.

One bullet to the back of the head. No warning. No chance for Juan to make peace with his God. No closure. No explanation. 

The Crossroads are quiet. A yellow sign warns skiers of snowmobiles. A perpendicular sign warns snowmobilers of skiers. The snow is packed down, groomed by snowmobile treads. Jordan turns north. Skiing immediately becomes easier. He can use his triceps to stab with the poles, giving his left shoulder a rest.

Rescue comes even faster than he could have hoped. A pair of yellow lights up ahead, rounding a corner, heading their way. Snowmobilers. Witnesses.

“Hey!” he screams. He doesn’t care how close his hunter is now. Doesn’t care about over-exerting himself. He skis as quickly as he can, waving one pole every few feet. His heart hammers his chest. His scarf slips, his cheeks flush against the bitter cold. He tries to call out again, but all he can manage is a raspy cough. 

The snowmobiles slow. 

“A thousand dollars if you take me into town,” he tells the lead snowmobiler, who’s bundled even heavier than Jordan’s faceless pursuer. The snowmobiler lifts up the visor on his helmet. He’s about to ask Jordan if he’s serious but Jordan is already awkwardly swinging one leg over the seat. “Go go go!”

And you couldn’t ask for a more perfect response. Whether the man believes Jordan or not, he’s going to take the chance. Jordan’s hunter is standing next to the yellow sign warning snowmobilers of crossing skiers. Ahead is a trail of groomed snow that snakes northeast and crosses through the town of Wentworth. And it looks like they’re going to make it.

Then a pop. The snowmobile slows. Jordan smells smoke. His rescuer utters a curse inside the helmet.

Another pop. To his right, Jordan watches the other snowmobile pass. But the rider is slumped over the handles, and the snowmobile drifts gently to the right, coming to a stop ten feet away.

Jordan lifts himself off the seat. The other rider raises his hands. Words are lost inside his helmet, but they have the obvious cadence of fear and pleading. It doesn’t help. Jordan’s hunter shoots him, too. Fast and callous, unthinking, the same way Jordan killed his partner in crime.

As the body collapses beside the snowmobile, Jordan notices a price tag hanging from the snowmobiler’s heavy blue jacket. He recognizes it because it’s the exact same price tag that was on his mittens.

And now Jordan realizes his mistake: the outdoor sports shop in Wentworth. He’d been there in the fall, shopping for mittens, the same ones he’s wearing now. There had been a woman from the local paper there, interviewing the shop owner about the financial impact of COVID-19, how the owner and his wife had stayed afloat by taking out a second mortgage, maxing out their credit cards. 

Jordan had empathized with the owner. During the Great Recession, he’d watched his father’s business fall apart. He’d watched his family peel away like scaling concrete. First, his father’s sobriety. Then his mother’s patience. Then his uncle’s sanity. 

And he’d stood there as the journalist took photos of the business, lost in those hard memories because the Great Recession had taken everything from him. Forgetting entirely that she’d taken a photo of him standing there next to the glove rack, his face entirely visible.

“Cam,” he says.

But the killer doesn’t answer. Doesn’t move. The gun is steady in his gloved hand. 

“You recognized me after all these years,” Jordan says. He forces a weak smile. He can’t raise his arms because of the screaming pain in his shoulders. He feels a stinging numbness run through his chest. Tight. Hot. He’s having a heart attack, maybe. Maybe he can convince the killer he’s going to die here anyway. 

“Let me go. I’ll give you the money.”

No answer. The snowmobiles’ engines have shut off, leaving them in dead silence. Clouds roll across the sky. The moon disappears. The darkness grows thicker. Jordan’s beating heart hurts.

“I have more money now. I’ll give you your cut, plus interest. How’s that sound?”

No answer. The man’s ski goggles reflect the moon as it reappears. The snow glows blue again, except where the two snowmobilers’ blood stains it like inkblots. Jordan took a lot of inkblot tests after his family fell apart. Testing his sanity. Analyzing his mental competence. But inkblots don’t measure the impact of watching your family business go bankrupt. Inkblots can’t assess the pain you feel when everything your family has worked for disappears and the guilt that consumes you in knowing how selfish that pain is when the people you love are suffering even more.

“At least tell me who you are,” he begs.

The killer doesn’t answer. Instead, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a card. He flicks it at Jordan. It spins in the air, lands next to the dead snowmobiler. Jordan reaches down to grab it. He recognizes it immediately.

His old driver’s license. With his real name. 

“Who are you?”

But the killer doesn’t answer. And Jordan sees the plan now in its entirety, so ironically ingenious: two dead bodies and a skier with a fake identity.

“At least tell me who you are!”

But the man doesn’t answer. And maybe it’s not a man at all. Because Cam never knew Jordan’s real name. Only Juan knew.

“You’re his daughter,” Jordan says. He wants her to say yes, to tell him about the pain he’s caused her and how good it feels to finally catch him. An explanation. Closure.

 But the figure doesn’t answer. And Jordan knows this is the ending he deserves. 

Ken Brosky's stories have been published in Mystery Weekly and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery magazine. His first novel, The Beyond, will be published in spring 2022. He loves woodworking and Nine Inch Nails.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Late Pickup at Sonny's Icehouse, fiction by Scott Von Doviak

Chuck Melville managed to stay out of trouble for six months following his release from the Texas state prison in Huntsville. That’s what folks would say later while passing the syrup at the Waffle House, although it would be more accurate to point out that Chuck got into a great deal of trouble during those six months—he just managed to evade the attention of law enforcement while he was doing it.

That lucky streak ended on a sticky August night in 1974 when Chuck pulled into the shopping plaza parking lot at North and Hutchison and spotted Gary Malloy getting out of his Ford F250. It was Gary who got Chuck sent to Huntsville in the first place, or at least that’s how Chuck saw it. The way he told it to his lawyer, it was Gary who beat the Sac ‘n Pac cashier with a tire iron while Chuck helped himself to the contents of the register. But when the judge read the verdict, it was Chuck who got a five-year stretch in Huntsville for aggravated assault, while Gary got away with six months in the county jail.

Watching Gary make his way from his truck to Discount Liquors, Chuck figured his old pal could use a lesson in aggravated assault. He hit the gas, and the Magnum V8 engine under the hood of the 1970 Dodge Challenger jumped to life. Gary heard it and glanced back over his shoulder, and Chuck saw his eyes go wide as the Grand Canyon just before he managed to dive out of the way. The plate-glass window bearing the Discount Liquors logo and the neatly arranged displays of cut-rate gin and bourbon behind it all exploded at once as Chuck plowed through the storefront.

Chuck shook it off and threw it into reverse as Discount Liquors proprietor Rob “Rooster” McElroy charged at him, arms waving, face redder than sunset. Chuck skidded and slammed into a VW Beetle, crumpling the hood like tissue paper. He glimpsed Gary hot-footing it back to his truck and slammed on the gas pedal again, forgetting he was still in reverse. He pancaked the Beetle into the Olds 88 parked behind it, shifted into forward gear, and clipped Rooster just as he’d reached the passenger side door. He heard Rooster holler and saw him roll to the pavement clutching his ankle in the rear-view. 

He’d missed his shot. Gary’s truck was already squealing out of the lot, heading west on Hutchison. At least he’d put a scare into his old pal. He spotted a frantic woman screaming into the pay phone in front of the check-cashing place and decided he’d shop for his liquor elsewhere. He pulled the Challenger out of the lot and drove it like he stole it. Technically, he did steal it, but that was another story. 


Chuck headed south until he crossed the county line. He was thirsty and remembered a place somewhere out on Route 46 where he could wet his whistle and maybe hustle up a game of pool. The trees thinned out ahead, and he spotted the neon beer signs. It was nearly midnight, and Sonny’s Icehouse was hopping.

The Challenger’s tires crunched over the gravel and bottlecaps that made up the parking lot. He found a place to park around back, which was perfect since he didn’t want the Challenger attracting undue attention. The events at the shopping plaza earlier might have made the radio news by now.

Once upon a time in Texas, icehouses had been just that—places where you could pick up blocks of ice to keep your food from spoiling in the days before home refrigeration. Having all that ice on hand made them the coolest places in town to hang out, and the proprietors soon realized they could keep beer nice and cold, too. Sonny’s typified the modern Texas icehouse: a dozen or so picnic tables outside, crowded with happy drinkers laughing and whooping it up; a jukebox inside playing Jerry Reed’s “Lord, Mr. Ford”; a couple of cowboys shooting pool and a bunch more crowded around watching; a jar of pickled eggs on the bar. Most surprising of all to Chuck, an attractive woman seated alone at the bar, unbothered by anyone.

Chuck pretended to study the jukebox selections, but his eyes kept wandering over to that woman. She was blonde, probably not naturally, and looked to be about thirty years old. She wore cutoff dungaree shorts and a tank top that barely restrained the gifts God had given her. She had a pack of Virginia Slims sitting on the bar in front of her, one of which she was smoking. She took an occasional sip from a bottle of Lone Star. A bar full of men, all of them ignoring her.

Chuck put a nickel in the jukebox and selected Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” He considered it to be his theme song. He walked over and leaned on the bar next to the woman, playing it cool, signaling to the barkeep. 

“Lone Star longneck,” he said. 

The man nodded and set a cold one in front of him. “Fifty cents.”

Chuck set a dollar on the bar. “Might as well give me another. This one ain’t gonna last.”

True to his word, Chuck chugged down half the bottle in one go. Licking his lips, he turned his attention to the woman next to him. “Maybe you can help me understand something.”

“Maybe I can,” she said, lighting another smoke.

“How is it that such a gorgeous woman as yourself can sit here alone at the bar, and not one of these red-blooded Texans in here even seems to know you’re alive?”

“Oh, they know I’m alive. Only reason they ain’t drooling all over me like you is they’re afraid of my husband.”

Chuck laughed. “Perks of being from out of town, I guess. I don’t know your husband, and I damn sure ain’t afraid of him.”

The woman looked him over. “Well, that’s a refreshing change. What’s your name, stranger?”

“Charles Melville III. But you can call me Chuck.”

“I’d rather call you Charles, honestly.”

“That’ll work. And your name is…?”

“Gwen Harlan. See, everyone else in here knows that.”

“And now I know it. Buy you another round, Gwen?”

“I was hoping.”

He did so, and they clinked bottles and drank.

“So what do you do, Charles?”

“Well now, that is a complicated question.”

“Didn’t sound complicated when it left my lips, but I guess we’re just getting to know each other.”

“What I mean is, I had a job. Working at a car wash. I quit it this morning. Had a little disagreement with my boss. He was under the impression that I had stolen some quarters out of the ashtray of this Buick station wagon while I was vacuuming it. Now, we’re talking about maybe six to eight quarters, so that’s two dollars at most. How the hell am I gonna risk losing my job over a lousy two bucks?”

“But it sounds like you did lose it.”

“No, ma’am. Like I said, I quit that job. Just the very suggestion that I would do such a thing was too much for me to bear. And anyway, I could tell he was gearing up to fire me, and no way was I gonna give him the satisfaction. Turns out it was the best thing I could have done because I ran into an old associate of mine this afternoon, and we discussed a new business opportunity.”

Chuck didn’t feel it was the right moment to mention that the associate in question was also a former inmate of the state prison in Huntsville. The particulars of the business opportunity were criminal in nature, and Chuck and his friend had discussed them while snorting crank and shooting at empty beer cans. Nor did Chuck think the time was right to disclose that he’d later tried to run over another old associate of his. Maybe once they’d gotten to know each other a little better.

“So where is this husband of yours everyone is so scared of?” he said by way of changing the subject. “You expecting him tonight?”

“No, he’s working the night shift.”

The overhead fluorescents flashed, signaling last call. “So that means your place is free for the rest of the evening?”

She looked him over again: his bushy muttonchop sideburns, his prominent chin, the gleam of a gold tooth in his smile. She’d seen worse. “You’ve got a lot of confidence, Charles.”

“I’m a man who knows what he likes. And what I’d like right now is to get a six-pack to go, take you out to my car, and drive you back to your place. At that point, we can just see where the night takes us.”

“My car is here.”

“And I’m sure it will be safe here until the morning. But I’ve got a Dodge Challenger out there, and you would not believe what that baby can do on these back roads.”

“Charles, I think you talked me into it.”


When Gwen climbed into the passenger seat, her foot hit an object on the floorboard. She picked it up. “What do we have here?”

“That’s my Saturday night special,” said Chuck. He’d been using the .25 semi-automatic pistol for target practice earlier in the day, after which he’d stuffed it under the passenger seat. He figured it must have gotten kicked loose while he was barrel-assing around the shopping plaza parking lot. “Why don’t you be a doll and stuff that back under your seat for me.”

She squinted and aimed the pistol toward Sonny’s front door. “Next one out is a dead man.”

“Come on, now. That ain’t funny.”

She shrugged and stuffed the gun back under her seat. “I thought it was.”

Chuck started the car. “Which way we headed?”

“Turn right out of the parking lot and show me what this thing can do.”

Chuck cracked open a Lone Star and peeled out of the lot. He gunned it when he hit the blacktop, and ten seconds later, the speedometer hit 80. It was a winding Hill Country road, and the car hugged every turn. 

“It straightens out up here for a couple miles,” said Gwen, sipping her beer. “Bet you can’t hit 120.”

“Shit, I can get ‘er to 130 without breaking a sweat.”

The engine revved and the speedometer climbed. The stars hung low in the Texas night sky, zipping by like comets. Gwen ran her fingers along Chuck’s leg. The Challenger hit 120 as it squealed past the police cruiser hidden by a mesquite tree just off the road.

Gwen spotted the red and blue flashing lights in her side-view mirror first. “Better hit it or quit it.”

Chuck had no intention of quitting it. He pushed the tachometer into the red as the Challenger hit 130 miles per hour. Whatever their pursuer had under the hood, there was no way he could catch them. Except the stretch of straightaway had come to an end, and the road started winding again. At 80, Chuck could still hug the curves. At 130, no chance. “Keep it between the ditches,” his Daddy always told him, the golden rule. The Challenger spun out as Chuck hit the brakes and did three full donuts before leaving the road entirely.

The car came to a rest gently enough under the circumstances. Chuck surveyed their surroundings. Running wasn’t an option, as the wide-open plain they found themselves in afforded no cover. The cruiser rolled to a stop behind them.

“You just let me handle this,” said Chuck. Gwen turned her head and stared out the passenger-side window.

The beam of a flashlight filled Chuck’s window. The cop knocked, and Chuck rolled it down.

“License and registration, please.”

Chuck handed them over. The cop examined them for a moment. “Now, you’ll have to help me out here, sir. Your driver’s license says Charles Melville, but this here vehicle is registered to a Dean Melville.”

“He’s my cousin.”

“Does he know you have his car?”

“He’ll figure it out.” 

The cop leaned down and peered into the car. As Chuck’s eyes adjusted, he could see he was dealing with a sheriff’s deputy. He had a calm demeanor and an ingratiating smile, as if they were just neighbors chatting over a fence. His nametag read “Harlan,” and that sounded familiar.

“This woman in the car with you,” said Deputy Harlan. “Is that your wife?”

“Nothing so formal as that,” said Chuck.

“Ma’am, I’m going to need to see your face.”

Gwen turned to face the deputy and gave a little wave.

“See, this is exactly what I thought,” said Deputy Harlan. “She couldn’t be your wife, because she’s my wife.”

“Gwen Harlan,” Chuck muttered.

“That’s right. And I’m Beau Harlan.”

“Listen, deputy, this is all a misunderstanding. She didn’t say nothin’ about being married.”

“No, I believe I did,” said Gwen. “I distinctly remember telling you that no one else in that bar was talking to me because they’re all afraid of my husband.”

“I’m going to have to ask both of you to step out of the vehicle now.”

“Deputy, I think we can settle this up real simple,” said Chuck. “Why don’t you just take her with you, and I’ll be on my way? After all, I was simply giving the woman a ride home with no bad intentions, and now there’s no need for me to do that.”

“Get out of the car. Now.”

Chuck sighed, pushed open his door, and climbed out.

“Put your hands on the hood and spread your legs, please.”

Chuck complied. “Listen, I’m gonna be completely straight with you. I am on probation. Anything you could do in the way of letting me off with a warning would be greatly appreciated.”

Deputy Harlan patted him down. “I guess I don’t even need to ask if you’ve been drinking tonight, judging from the empty containers in your vehicle. Well, your cousin’s vehicle, I mean to say.”


Chuck and the deputy both looked in the direction of the outburst. Both saw Gwen standing there, holding Chuck’s Saturday night special, but Deputy Harlan didn’t see her for long. She squeezed off three shots. The deputy stumbled backward, his face transformed into a mask of shock. He touched his chest, and his hand came away covered in blood. He collapsed to the ground.

“Holy shit!” said Chuck. “Are you crazy?” He knelt down to confirm what he already knew. The deputy was gone. “Jesus Christ. I mean, yeah, you got us out of our immediate predicament, but this is really bad. He must have called in the license plate before he got out of his car, searching for wants and warrants and what-have-yous.”

“Your cousin’s license plate.”

“Well, yeah. I see what you’re saying, but it’s not going to take long for anyone investigating this here crime to learn that you and I were together at Sonny’s Icehouse tonight and that we left together. Maybe even an eyewitness saw us leaving in this car.”

“Stand up, Charles. I need you to explain something to me.”

Chuck did as she asked, nice and slow. “What is it, dollface?”

“Two questions. First, is my husband dead?”

“Oh yes. He’s really most sincerely dead.”

“Second question. How could you kill my husband like that? In cold blood?” She pointed the gun at him.

“Now, let’s think about this, Gwen. I get what’s going through your head. You want to pin this on me, and that makes sense from your point of view. That is my gun, although I should tell you it is not a registered weapon. I bought it at a flea market, paid cash. But here’s the most important thing. If you shoot me with the same gun that killed your husband, well, it’s not gonna take Columbo to figure out you’re the one who pulled the trigger on both of us.”

“Step away from my husband’s body.”

Chuck did so. Gwen took a few steps toward the corpse. 

“What’s the plan here, Gwen?”

“What you say is true. I can’t shoot you with this gun. But if I shoot you with my husband’s gun, it looks like you shot each other. And I’ll just be the grieving widow they find on the scene. I’ll tell them how you made me leave Sonny’s with you at gunpoint. How you drove like a maniac with me as your terrified prisoner. It’s all gonna work out for me.”

“It does sound that way, except for one minor detail,” he said as she leaned down beside her dead husband. He watched as she reached for his holster and found it empty. He raised Deputy Harlan’s .38 and took aim. “You see, I already liberated this from your husband while I was checking his vitals. Not that I knew right away what you had planned. I ain’t that clever. But seeing what you had just done to your husband did make me kinda wonder what you’d do to a man you just met tonight.”

Gwen stood up, hands raised. “Now, listen, Charles. We can work this out another way. We can get back in your car and drive all the way to Mexico.”

“No, I don’t believe that will work. Like I said, this car is already burnt. He called in the plates, so if we try to cross the border, they’ll have the number and we’ll be in cuffs. Here’s how I see it. They’re gonna find you and your husband here, both shot dead with separate guns. Some kind of lovers’ quarrel, who knows. They’ll find his patrol car, they’ll find both guns on the scene, but I’ll be gone.”

“You’re not going to kill me, Charles.” She turned and started running back toward the road.

Chuck didn’t want to shoot her in the back, but the way he saw it, she hadn’t left him much choice. He kept squeezing the trigger until the gun had nothing left.


It was three a.m. by the time Chuck pulled the Challenger into his cousin Dean’s driveway. He knocked on the door, and a bleary-eyed Dean answered.

“I brought your car back.”

“Why the fuck did you take it in the first place?”

Chuck lit a cigarette. “For one thing, you made it too easy for me. I came by to see if you wanted to get breakfast. Your front door was unlocked, and the car keys were on the kitchen table.”

“That’s not really an answer.” 

“No, it’s not,” said Chuck, tapping ash onto the driveway. He stared at the Challenger for a long moment. “This car is everything I dreamed on when I was locked up. I mean, not this one in particular. Just the idea of it. That I was gonna get out of prison, and I was gonna be a free man. With a cool car. Picking up hot chicks in bars. And I wasn’t ever gonna do anything to get myself locked up again.”

“How’s that going?”

        “Well, I’ll tell ya. This is a fast car, cousin. Just not fast enough for me to outrun myself.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Chuck. And I’m tired.”

“Here they come.” Chuck pointed down the road to the flashing lights on the horizon.

“They’re coming for you?”

“Yeah. Afraid they might take your car, too. You’ll get her back, though. I’ve got no stomach for another trial. I’ll tell them everything I did, and that you had nothing to do with any of it.”

“What did you do, Chuck?”

Chuck ground his cigarette under his heel as the police cruiser pulled in behind the Challenger. “When you do get her back, take good care of her. Don’t take her for granted. Good car like this needs a good man behind the wheel.”

He got down on his knees and laced his fingers behind his head as the cops came up the driveway.

Scott Von Doviak's Charlesgate Confidential (Hard Case Crime) was named one of the top ten crime novels of 2018 by the Wall Street Journal. He is the author of three nonfiction books on film and television and a regular contributor to the Onion's AV Club. His short fiction has appeared in Mystery Weekly and Shotgun Honey. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

You Lie in a Grave Alone, fiction by Rob D. Smith

Kay Pulaski nudged the old man in the shoulder. They sat in his gray Chevrolet Silverado in the Quik-Stop parking lot. “What about the big blue one?”

“By pump three?” asked Eddie Morrison. “Yeah, she might do. Good eye.”

The blue truck jacked up an extra ten inches on thick off-road wheels had the right stickers on the windows. The red Ruger hawk circular decal, a Don’t Tread on Me snake cut in pieces, and the rebel flag stacked over an American flag in black. Shiny tool lockbox in the bed of the pickup. The whole blue truck gleamed with polish. Even the tires had a high sheen to them.

“Ain’t no work truck. It’s a show truck for some wannabe. Wannabes have low self-esteem. Need lots of toys to compensate. Let me know when you see him.”

Kay nodded. She knew everything he said. Old man just liked to hear his thoughts out loud. She didn’t get crusty about it. She liked his voice. Black coffee, bourbon, and age had given it the right gravelly effect. Repetition only engrained his lessons.

“Wannabe five o’clock.”

Morrison perked up and watched a tall man with wavy blond hair and potbelly under one of those shiny golf shirts come walking across the asphalt towards pump three. A giant Styrofoam cup full of soda sweating in his hand. His skinny legs had a lot of room in his blousy slacks to strut. Big expensive sunglasses with polarized blue lenses. 

“I should buy you those glasses.”

Morrison touched the arm of his cheap aviators. “Mine work fine and if I flatten them with my bony ass, I ain’t out three hundred dollars.”

The wannabe hitched himself up into his F-150. He almost spilled his drink but caught it at the last second. Pushed the lid back on and licked his fingers clean. His door shut, he checked his hair in the rearview mirror and started the truck. Bah-room. Bah-room.

Morrison chuckled. “This guy must have the smallest dick in the county.”

“Or think he does.” Kay wouldn’t mind a cold soft drink right now. Dr. Pepper, maybe. Morrison didn’t believe in air-conditioning. Made you soft.

“True. The mind can be a powerful ally or your worst enemy.” He popped his tongue. “You really should be writing down these words of wisdom.”

She tapped her forehead. “I keep them gems all safe up here.”

“I ain’t going to be around forever, is all.” He coughed and spat out his window.

“Are you going to around long enough to drive because the wannabe is pulling out of the lot while you learn me a thing or two?”

He laughed. “Couldn’t lose this peacocking wannabe with my eyes closed.”

He followed after the blue truck in his Silverado at a pace not too fast and not too slow. Just like he did everything else in his life. Kay found herself emulating him ever since they met outside a Dollar Tree where he noticed her shoplifting. He was a piece of work four years ago, and he was a piece of work now. And he wouldn’t be around forever. A lesson learned before she met Morrison. At least, he was honest with her.

They caught up to the big blue truck a little way down busy Shelbyville Road. It was halfway through rush hour in Louisville, and this was a busy vein of traffic. Wannabe took a right onto Hubbards Lane without a turn signal. They went about a mile and crossed some train tracks, getting caught at a stoplight before crossing Westport Road. 

Wannabe in the blue truck drove aggressively fast, oblivious to being followed. No one but the occasional paranoid individual believes they are being followed. Kay had begun to recognize other people on the hunt like her and Morrison. Certain drivers with hunter eyes pursuing weak marks not paying attention to their surroundings. She wasn’t sure how recognizing shared traits with these predators made her feel, but she felt a butterfly flap in her stomach.

“Jesus,” said Morrison as the blue truck took a sharp left without slowing down onto Hillside Lane. It was so abrupt he had to continue down Hubbards before turning around and coming back. 

“We’ll spot that peacock.”

“Unless he’s pulled into a garage.”

“Negative thoughts…” He started.

“Bring negative action.” She tapped her forehead. “Told you I got them all written down in here.”

“I reckon you do.” He slowed their truck as they came to a two-way veer. “Right is the path of virtue. Left is the path of darkness.”

She pointed left, and Morrison drove accordingly. This road was called Twinbrook. Maybe there was a brook nearby, but she didn’t hear any running water out her window. The houses here were well kept made in the seventies ranch and tri-levels. Lawns were well-manicured, most by lawn services. The houses were not luxury but this land location was. 

Kay craned her neck, checking every driveway on her right side.  “I could get out and walk around if you want.”

“Patience. We ain’t even seen every house yet.” When they suddenly came to an unmarked dead end. “Shit.”

She grabbed the door handle, ready to get out. He shook his head. “Guess we can find another fish back at the convenient store.”

Morrison drove into the last house at the dead end’s driveway to turn around, and when he did, she caught a flash of blue. She slapped the dashboard. “There it is.”

The end of the chrome bumper stuck out from the corner of the orange brick ranch house. He continued his turning around and they both took in the house in their rearview mirror. He sighed. “It’s good but not a lot of places to sit and watch. Lot of nosy neighbors and only one exit.”

She said, “It’s a quiet dead end with little traffic. I like it.”

“Well, you’ll be the one going in, so I guess we’ll try it.” He pulled over on the side of the road. “We’ll watch a little before we leave. Give me one of those Big Reds.”

She reached behind the extended cab of their pickup, fishing a Big Red out of the small cooler. He thanked her, and as he drank the red soda, he choked on a cough. He covered his mouth with an old paper towel from the seat. He caught her observing him. “Put them eagle eyes on the house girly.”

She did as he asked and settled in for a little reconnaissance. The constant cough of her mentor distracting her but not stopping her from their task.


They had gotten back to Morrison’s house after seven o’clock in the evening after grabbing some burgers on the way home. It was cloudy but still a little balmy. They ate on the sun-worn picnic table in his backyard. He drank another Big Red. Built like a man-sized hummingbird, she guessed he needed all the sugar water he could consume in a day. He didn’t touch his food, not even the salty fries. She had four sliders with cheese and devoured all of them.

Between sips, he said, “We’ll take what we get tomorrow to Stussy on Friday.”

“Assuming we get anything.”

“Minimum, I’m guessing at least two Glock’s, an AR-15. Lots of ammo.” He finished his burgers, wadded up the wrappers, and threw them in the bag.

She had already finished her sliders and took his bag with hers to the outdoor garbage can. When she came back, he was stretching a little. “Stussy planning to lowball you again?”

“Good business, ain’t it. Screw the working man. Pass costs onto the consumers. Learned those economic tidbits working in Tillman’s factory all those years.”

“But we’ll make enough, right?”

“Nothing is ever enough, but we’ll be fine.” He leaned a hand on her thick shoulder. “I’m going inside. Want to watch me yell at the jackasses on the Wheel of Fortune?”

She shook no. “Going to draw some then turn in early.”

“Smart.” He was at the concrete porch steps. “You’ll say no for the hundredth time, but do you want to sleep in my spare room tonight? Awful humid out.”

Another shake of her head. “I’m good.”

He nodded with a little smile and opened his door to go inside. “Goodnight.”


She went back to the concrete cinder block garage painted white. On the right side, there was a door in the rear leading to a small room off the main garage. It connected to the two-car bay with an interior door. There was one window. Once inside, she got a small fan, opened the window, and stuck it carefully in the frame facing to blow the hot air out. She flipped it on and then got another bigger box fan to cool her space.

A few nine by twelve-inch sheets of drawing paper with her manga sketches were taped to the wall. A big couch with a University of Kentucky blanket took up the majority of the little room. She kept soft drinks and water cool inside a mini-fridge Morrison had bought her. A small table in the corner she fashioned into her drawing desk. She had a cheap Chromebook from Walmart she watched shows on and used for online stuff. She knew the bed in the house would be more comfortable, but she didn’t feel right sleeping in his dead son’s room. 

Kevin went off to serve a tour in the Army. Morrison said he was excited for his big adventures overseas. He was always a patriotic kid growing up. Morrison’s wife was already gone, and he would be lonely, but he was proud his son was leaving for a higher purpose. Kevin never made it out of boot camp. He had an undiagnosed heart condition and died while on a training hike.

Morrison had taken an early retirement not soon after from Tillman Electric. He couldn’t stand to be around people anymore. All the inane conversation and gossip. The empty work on the line of bolt-in your piece then pulled a cord. His pension was just enough for him to get by till it wasn’t. That’s when he became an outlaw entrepreneur. 

He was over seventy now. Strength and stamina slipping every year. It’s why he brought her into the fold. Their chance meeting at the Dollar Tree was a sign from above, he said. The diminutive old cuss felt her bicep, and she almost cold-cocked him. Said she was as broad as his late son. An offer to make more money than shoplifting. She thought it was a sex thing and reared back her fist.

He backed up with hands raised and laughed out an apology. She let him buy her lunch at the closest McDonalds. At a table in the rear of the restaurant, away from prying ears, he gave her his recruitment pitch. Come steal guns with him, and he would cut her in for half of what he made selling them to his buyer. She nodded her head when she dipped her last French fry in ketchup. A partnership was born.

At first, he just used her as a tool, but it grew deeper for both of them. An offering of her to stay in the house fell flat but she asked if the room at the rear of the garage was available. Their symbiotic relationship was beneficial. Kay was a good listener, and he had over seventy years of lessons he needed to unfurl one conversation at a time. Neither one shared their secrets.

She sat down on the couch and opened her drawing pad. There was an opened letter for Eddie Morrison inside. She had taken the envelope when she was in his kitchen last week. A pile of mail on the table, but this one was all by its lonesome. He was always going on about paying attention to signs and intuition. Her gut told her to take the letter. It was already open, and she planned on returning it, but every night since she had taken it out and reread it.

It was a past-due bill from Lutheran’s East Hospital on blood work and other medical exams. The total was outrageous. His Medicaid paid for a small percentage, but the rest was to be paid by the patient. The tests the doctors ran were for lung carcinoma. She had looked the word up online. The answer she found troubled her.

She put the letter back in the envelope and tucked it between the pages of her sketchbook. She picked up her worn Sharpie marker and would draw big-eyed warrior women fighting giant robots till her mind got drifty enough. She would then turn in for the night, hoping for sweatless dreams and not hot nightmares about her friend’s suffering.


They were sitting up the way on Hillside Lane a few houses up from the veer onto Twinbrook Road, waiting at 6:30 in the morning. Last night they had seen Mrs. Wannabe come home an hour after her husband in a white Ford Explorer. A young girl got out of the car too in a soccer uniform. They waited for a couple of more hours with no other vehicles pulling up. Kay pulled her walking routine and went around the neighborhood a couple of times to get a feel on foot. 

A little after 8:00 am, they were sitting in a truck listening to a story on NPR about some strange disease affecting local birds, and people should stop feeding them till it subsided when she heard the thick growl of the big truck’s engine. Morrison had his head down like he was sleeping, but she saw a slight grin. 

The blue truck didn’t even slow down at the stop sign and blew past their spot on Hillside. Kay saw his wet hair as he went by, mouthing the words to some song she couldn’t hear.

Morrison said, “The rooster has left the coop. Just need Mama hen and the baby chick out now.”

“What if she doesn’t work till later or at all? We should have watched the place for a couple of days like we usually do.” She plucked at the cracking rubber seal on the passenger window.

“If we see anything hinky, we’ll call it off. Trying to be efficient. Running out of time before we have to meet Stussy.”

“Then we back the meet off a day or two. We got plenty of time.”

“I’m doing it today!” he said, cutting her off. He reached across her and opened her door. “You can get out if you don’t trust me anymore.”

Kay was stunned. He had never had a short word with her or been physically aggressive. Maybe gruff but never angry. She got hot herself and slammed the door shut. She folded her arms across her chest but bit her tongue. Her eyes became small slits hiding the furnace inside. A furnace fired by anger but also largely from the shame she had let down her mentor.

He sputtered an apology right away. “Shouldn’t have barked. Your instincts are right. We should watch the house a couple of days, but I want to sell as many guns to Stussy as we can.”

“Are you short money?”

He picked his Styrofoam coffee cup out of the holder. “No. Nothing. I just got a feeling time is slipping away.”

“We get caught stealing, and time will seem as long as a coffin.”

He about spat his coffee out laughing. Still sore, she asked, “What’s so funny?”

“I must be rubbing off on you. You don’t talk no teenager.”

She grinned. “I talk like you.”

She was about to continue their argument when the wife’s white SUV came to a stop at Twinbrook and Hillside. She pointed at her. Morrison clucked his tongue. “I see Mama hen. You see the baby chick?”

The SUV pulled past them, and Kay saw a blond ponytail in the passenger seat. “Yeah, they’re both in the car.”

He checked his watch. “We’ll give them fifteen minutes in case someone forgot something.”

They had been waiting for over an hour already. This neighborhood should all be rousing and getting ready for the working day like their marks were. The fifteen minutes made her anxious for the task at hand. Breaking into a person’s home was an act of faith. To her, it was like walking on the moon not knowing when your air would run out. She enjoyed the sensation. Morrison had ruined her for mundane jobs like waitressing or teaching. 

“Okay, time to make our money.”

Kay got out of the truck and zipped up her white painter coveralls while checking to see if anyone was watching. Next, she pulled the magnetic signs from behind her seat, attached one to the outside of her door, then crossed over to the driver’s side door and attached the other one. Colson Pest Control with an upside-down roach. The roach was supposed to be dead but, it could be sleeping as far as Kay could tell. These signs were from Morrison’s son’s old job before he left for the Army. He left an old spray bottle and his work coveralls. 

Morrison wore the old coveralls even though it was a size and a half too big. The baggy material swallowed him up, but Kay never laughed at him out of respect for his late son Kevin. She got back in the truck and they made leisurely for the house. He said, “What happens if I call you on the phone while you’re inside?”

“I haul ass out the backyard through the house behind’s yard until I reach Elmwood. Follow that to North Hubbard Lane and hide till you pick me up.”

“Right. You ain’t fast, so don’t waste time. Drop everything and git.”

“I might be fast. We’ve never tested my sprint time.”

He laughed. “Girly, I think the world of you. You’re back is as strong as any boy I know, but you’re a Clydesdale, not a thoroughbred.”

They reached the house where the wannabe parked his truck yesterday. Morrison parked in front of a big fir tree, which almost blocked the view of the house. They noticed a doorbell camera on yesterday’s recon. He wanted to stay out of view, so it didn’t ping their phones. Most people got tired of checking their phone apps all the time and finding birds or UPS delivery men. Still, they never took the chance unless they disabled the camera first. The large tree the dumb wannabe had planted negated the goal of his security camera.

 Now, if the neighbors just kept to themselves, they could get on with their business. They had never really had any issues. Once a woman came over to ask how what they were spraying for hunting for gossip. By the time she left, Morrison had given her a quote on how much to spray the nosy woman’s house. It’s funny what you can get away with by wearing some coveralls and a little signage. Service people become as invisible as the elderly.

Kay put on a hat matching her coveralls and got out. He waggled his flip phone across the seat at her. “Is your phone on vibrate?”

“Yes, boss.” 

“Okay sassafras, I’ll just let the cops sneak up on you.”

“I got it set. Just buzz for the fuzz.” She held up her cheap smartphone then slammed the door. In the bed of the pickup, she got out a large empty rucksack and slung it around her shoulders. A white one-gallon pesticide pump sprayer with a longneck nozzle came out next. Nothing but water inside but a great prop to fool anyone watching.

As she passed by his open window, he said, “Be careful, Kay. Trust your gut and everything will be frosty.”

She nodded and went to work as a fake Colson Pest Control associate. She started by spraying the corner of the house, walking through some flower beds carefully avoiding the doorbell camera’s range. Working slowly along the foundation as she went down the incline to the rear of the house. She peeked around the corner, and didn’t witness any security cameras. A  couple of steps and she crossed the paved driveway to the basement garage with two bay doors. The regular entry door for people was locked. She peeked in the window and didn’t see any cars.

There were a couple of ways to gain entry into a house. If there were no obvious home security system or services, she could break a window and get in. She could also pick the locks, which worked but took a little time. And then there was the garage door entry. She set down her spray bottle, took off her rucksack, and set it on the driveway. Rucksack unzipped, she took out a bent coat hanger wire and straightened it. There was also a small block of wood.

She wedged the wood between the rubber seal and the upper part of the garage door, opening a seam. She took the wire hanger and looked through the window at the garage door safety release mechanism. Bent the hanger a little, then threaded it through the seam at the top. She fished for a couple of seconds, and hooked the safety release latch. She pulled, and the tension went out of the door. She yanked the hanger out, removed the wedge, and tested the garage door. It glided up easily.

Once inside, she shut the garage door and set her fake pesticide spray bottle on the smooth floor by the smaller exterior door. She unlocked it in case she had to bolt. There was an interior door to the house with a couple of wooden steps and a handrail. She took a look around the garage but doubted there were any guns stored out here. The interior door was unlocked, and she gained entry into a small foyer with steps upstairs to her left and an open floor den to her right.

The short nap beige carpeted floor had a large L-shaped couch in front of a gigantic widescreen television mounted on the wall, complete with an extensive sound system around and below it. There was a bar on the back wall behind the couch. Another smaller flat-screen TV was behind the bar. Plenty of bourbon bottles. A lot of sports memorabilia on the wall. This was the wannabe’s man cave. She felt a little sorry for the wife and daughter already.

There was an open door to the left of the plush couch. She went over, flipped the light switch, and looked inside. An office-type setup with a good-sized cherry wood desk and dark leather desk chair. Some gaudy plaques on the wall read Salesman of the Quarter for the years 2015 to 2017. A small bookshelf with a lot of unopened books and some big work-related binders. On his desk was a small crystal pyramid engraved with Salesman of the Year 2017. The giant peacock’s name was Frank LeRoy. 

She smiled when she saw the tall pewter gray gun safe in the corner. A GoodLock Security Company model. She tugged on the three-prong handle to see if he had left it unlocked. The heavy-gauge steel safe was shut tight. No pry bar would work. They never forced entry into a gun safe. Morrison taught her one trick and one trick only. 

The circular twelve-digit keypad electronic lock was eye level on the door. Ninety-five percent of all safe makers have a default security code for the locks. Once the owner buys it, they add the combination they want to use. But you have to delete the old security code, or it will still open the safe. The code was always six digits and always one through six. Kay entered the sequence on the keypad. Click. The handle spun freely in her hands, and the safe revealed its contents.

A modified Ruger AR-556 like Morrison guessed. A black Mossberg pump twelve-gauge shotgun with a pistol grip. There were three boxes of shotgun shells stacked at the bottom on top of a 1,000-round case of .223 Remington 56 grain. She was going to have to call Morrison to back the truck down. She was strong, but this would be an awkward carry.

On a top shelf, she found a pink framed 9mm Glock 43. No way this was Frank LeRoy’s pistol. He must have got it for his wife but stored it in here. There was a couple of twenty-round box of 9mm ammo. She expected another handgun but it was likely he was carrying it in his truck cab. What was unexpected was the fifty-round box of .357 magnum hollow points. The revolver taking that type of ammunition wasn’t in the safe. Upstairs in the bedroom, she bet.

She got the rifles and pistol into her bag with the three boxes of handgun ammo. Zipped the ruck up and carried it over into the garage by the exit door. The heavy box of rifle ammo she placed next to her bag. She was going to call Morrison, but the lure of the .357 Magnum was too much. Those guns could cost $1,200 and up. Stussy might pay two grand for it. She put her phone back in her pocket and went up the stairs.

Left was the kitchen and right turned into a quaint living room. Natural light came in from the window, and she navigated the house easily to the master bedroom. A king-size platform bed with a cream-colored bedspread dominated the room. Men usually slept on the right side of the bed for some reason, so Kay sat down on the bed and checked the table. Inside the drawer was a stainless steel .357 revolver with Ruger Redhawk stamped on its frame. As she was checking to see if it was loaded, her phone buzzed in her pocket.

She jumped up and looked out the bedroom window. She couldn’t see Morrison’s truck behind the big tree, but she didn’t see any police cars either. She answered her phone. “Are you okay?

He said, “What I wanted to know myself. You’ve been in there too long.”

“I’m done now, but you’re going to need to back down to the garage.”

“Okay, girly. On my way.” He ended their call.

She made for the garage skipping every other step down the stairs. She had the back door of the garage open before he backed around the corner. He didn’t get out to help her. She shrugged the box of rifle ammo up and into his truck bed. Slid it under a heavy sheet of canvas. The rucksack filled with the guns and other ammo went under there as well. She got into the passenger side of the truck, and he hit the gas. They were out of the neighborhood and onto Hubbards Lane before she realized she had the hefty revolver inside her coveralls.

When she pulled it out, he whistled, “That’s a beaut.”

“Figure Stussy will try to cheat you down, but it was worth the extra digging for it.”

He coughed. “You did great girly. Damn fine…” His coughing took over, and they didn’t speak again until he got it under control. Both acted like nothing was wrong.


Kay inked the arm on her latest drawing. A warrior woman in mid-swing with a laser katana held in a cybernetic arm. She heard some cussing coming from the backyard. Sounded like Morrison, but what could he be angry at? She stopped drawing and went out into the dusky evening to investigate. Careful to open and close her door to keep out the insects.

She found him messing with one of his bird feeders. He had about four feeders. Birds were like his television some days. Just sit at the window in the dining room and see what pretty, hungry birds showed up. She thought he also got a kick out of bedeviling the squirrels with all the baffles he attached to keep the bushy-tailed rodents from the birdseed. Two feeders were already detached and set on the picnic table. He cussed again while trying to undo some twisted wire.

“Why are you taking down your bird feeders?”

“You heard the story on the radio. Don’t want to watch any sick bird suffering.”

She came over and held the bird feeder so he could find the knot in the wire. “They said not to feed them anymore. The birds will be back when they ain’t sick no more.”

“Less things I got to take care of the better. I’m…”

“…not going to be around forever,” she finished. 

He looked like he might pop his cork, but he just let out a little puff of air. “But it’s true girly. You better be making plans for when I’m gone. You got a lot of future to live. Going to be an outlaw or something respectable?”

He got the wire undone, and she carried the bird feeder over to the picnic table with the others. “Maybe I want to be a respectable outlaw.”

He chuckled. “Think I keep you around for that smart mouth instead of your strong back.”

They went to work on the fourth hanging bird feeder. “I probably should think more about the future, but I’m happy doing jobs with you.”

“You’ve been a great partner. You have, but I want something better for you when I’m gone. Something stable so you can have your own family.”

She mulled on this for a bit while they unclipped the feeder from its hanger. “Except for you, I prefer to be alone.”

“You’ll lie in a grave alone. While you’re above ground, it’s best to surround yourself with friends or family.”

“I don’t have any family.”

“And I don’t anymore. But when I did, it was glorious. Best times of my life. I don’t want you to deprive yourself, Kay. You need to have a life not hang around here helping an old man steal guns.”

She saw her chance to change the subject. “Spoke with Stussy a little bit ago. Primed the pump with the Magnum we got. Bet he pays extra for it.”

He took out a rag and mopped his brow. “Should give us some walking around money with all the guns and ammo. Get you some new markers to draw them crazy women you like.”

She stretched the garden house out and turned on the faucet. Flecks of debris, old seed shells, and bird poop flew off the feeders from the water pressure. He stood with his hands on his hips looked like he was trying to catch his breath. Kay focused on her task and cleaned off the last feeder. She shut off the faucet and came back to his side.

“I’ll let them dry off, then hang in the garage. Unless you want me to toss them?”

“Nah, do like you said. Maybe we’ll have a big yard sale soon. Clear out some of my crap and make some money off some suckers.”

“A yard sale? Sure, we might as well cut out Stussy and just start selling guns in the front yard. Why yes, Miss Wayley, I think a brown gun stock brings out the blue in your eyes.” She started to laugh.

“Four bullets for five dollars or the whole box for fifty.” His laugh turned into a cough, and soon, he was doubled over. Spit some thick phlegm onto the grass. She came over and put a hand on his back.

He tried to speak. Coughed some more, then shook his head. He finally got some space to talk. “I’m heading in. Too much silliness for this old codger. See you in the morning.”

She let him go in without any more words or protest. She noticed the glob of phlegm had some blood in it. Back in her room, she knew she wouldn’t finish inking the arm on her warrior. The envelope with Morrison’s doctor bill waited for her to read for the umpteenth before she went to sleep.


Stussy parked his dark green van near the middle of the Home Depot parking lot. Not too far away from Chik-fil-A restaurant with a packed drive-thru breakfast line. A perfect wholesome Americana spot to sell stolen guns. Morrison pulled nose to nose with the van. Stussy had his ugly hat pulled down over his face and looked asleep. Maybe he had slept here last night. In all their exchanges they had never beaten him to the meet.

Both their truck doors slamming roused him from his slumber. He shifted his hat back into place, recognized them, and gave a two-finger salute. He didn’t get out, so they came over to his window. “Morning. What’s happening with my two favorite entrepreneurs?”

Morrison said, “Can’t complain.”

She just shrugged. And after Stussy realized he wasn’t going to get much more conversation, he got down to business. “Okay, tough crowd. Bring your stuff to the back of the van.”

Morrison followed her to the back of his truck. She undid the tailgate and hefted one used Army rucksack around her shoulders. She picked up the other in her strong right grip and stepped back as he shut the tailgate. She walked calmly and deliberately, so she didn’t drop anything and didn’t draw attention to herself. As far as anyone could tell they were just blue-collar workers exchanging some tools in a hardware superstore parking lot. No one had ever approached them before, and no one ever would. Welcome to the invisible society of outlaws.

Stussy had his van swing doors open and was sitting on the end waiting. “Okay, sports fans. Let’s see what we’ve got.”

Kay slid the two rucksacks next to each other on the van floor, making sure to slide them deep enough for cover. She stepped back and kept an eye on the parking just in case a stray lookie-loo or go-getter police officer showed up. Morrison unzipped both rucksacks and spread them open. She heard a whistle from Stussy as he saw the guns and ammo. His business style amused her. He never could hide his delight or disappointment in what they had; hence he never came from a good bargaining position. Morrison would never wiggle on price anyway. 

He counted their inventory. “Great haul guys, but where’s that Magnum you were bragging about Kay?”

Morrison hacked a little. “I decided to keep that one.”

“That’s going to take twelve hundred off the top.” Stussy zipped the bags back up. 

“Twelve hundred?” stammered Kay. “Sell him the damn pistol.”

Morrison held up a palm to her. “It’s not here. Maybe I’ll sell it sometime later.”

“I didn’t do all that work for…”

“Enough!” He cut her off. The bark caused him to wheeze into a coughing spell.

Stussy zipped up the bags. “You all right, Eddie?”

Kay put a hand on Morrison’s shoulder. “He’s fine. We’re all fine.”

“If you say so.” He tipped his ugly cap back. It was bright purple with some orange tiger stripes. He said it was his disguise. People would never be able to describe his face because the hat distracted them. Wasn’t a bad idea.

He shrugged her hand off his shoulder. “Ain’t got time to put on a show this morning. Got stuff to do.”

Stussy held up his hands in surrender. He reached into the van and brought out a crumpled white Chik-fil-A bag. He opened it and pulled twelve hundred out for the missing Magnum. Handing the bag to Morrison, he said, “Here are your chicken biscuits.” 

Morrison unfolded the bag and looked inside. Satisfied, he resealed the bag and made for his truck. “See you later, Stussy.”

“You don’t need any extra ruck bags?” They usually exchanged full bags for empties afterward.

Kay hung back and called to Morrison. “I’ll get them.” 

He waved a hand and continued to his truck cab. She waited for him to get out of earshot and asked, “Do you have the pills I asked for last night?”

“One thing at a time, little lady.” He was getting a couple of empty ruck bags out of the van first. After handing her the bags, he took a white pill bottle out of his pocket and shook them. “Like I promised.”

She handed him some folded bills in the amount he told her. Just as they were trading, she looked up and saw Morrison watching them from his seat in his truck through the van’s interior. Old man was slipping in almost every category but vision. His eyes turned to slit, and she felt her cheeks flush. Nothing like the shame of getting caught.

She told Stussy bye, and he crawled back in his van, ugly hat and all. She loped back to the truck dreading the ride home. Still, she got into the passenger’s side. Buckled up and stayed quiet. She felt him looking at her, then he started his truck up and backed out. They made it out of the parking lot and to the second light on Hurstbourne Lane before he spoke.

“I thought you were smarter.”

“Than what?”

“Don’t insult me. You want to get high and mess up your life. Wait till I’m good and gone.”

“They ain’t for me.” She leaned into her door.

“Oh, you’re a real outlaw. Going to sell it on the street.” His gravelly voice rose. This red light was taking forever to turn green.

“Just don’t.”

He roared. “Lie to yourself, but don’t lie to me!”

She screamed as loud as her frustration would let her. All the secrets burning the furnace inside her. No words just baying. She fumbled for the door handle and fell out of the car. Her knees bounced on the asphalt. She got up and slammed the door shut. His face caught in an oh-shit moment. The light turned green.

He said, “Get back in the truck girly.”

She crossed in front of his truck to the median. He pleaded with her to get back in the truck. Someone behind them honked at the busy intersection. His eyes flashed with anger again.

“Last time girly. Get in the truck.” His voice started to break

She bawled, “Leave me alone.”

He set his chin high, but a coughing fit came on and stole his pride. His truck pulled away with his jagged coughing ringing in her ear.


Kay had gotten to the house an hour or so later dripping with sweat. She spent her time backpacking all her belongings up in two gym bags she had gotten from the sporting goods store on the clearance table. They were garish red and purple. All her clothes were in one bag. Her Chromebook, markers, drawing pads, and shoes were in the other bag. A roll of a little over two thousand dollars was stuffed in one shoe. She sat on the picnic table between them, holding Morrison’s envelope she had swiped. 

She left the bags but carried the envelope with her to the back door. A peek through the window showed him sitting at his kitchen table with a cup of coffee. She knocked like she usually did, then opened the door and entered. He gave her a half-grin, and she sat down across from him. She put the envelope onto the table between them.

He placed a finger on the envelope and slid it to his side. “You don’t have to say anything.”

“I think we both have some things we need to say.”

“I’m sorry I got heated. Those pills? I just want what’s best for you, girly.”

“Because you won’t be around forever?”

He nodded, trying to avoid her gaze. Balancing the corners of the envelope with his fingers, he said, “I wasn’t blowing smoke.”

She saw his mug was empty. “I know why you didn’t sell the Magnum to Stussy this morning.”

“I always liked the .357’s. Feels like the proper gun for men like me.”

She took the mug and went to the coffee pot refilling it. Back at the table, she set it in front of him, and he thanked her.

“My Daddy had a gun. Ivory grip revolver. Ivory was likely imitation but it was pretty.” She slowly sat back down. “He had a lot of guns mostly rifles, but that shiny pistol was his favorite.”

He put his hand over hers. “Kay honey, you don’t have…”

“Mom went missing a couple of years before you met me. Left work and never made it home one day. Police searched for her but no leads. Dad assumed the worst. I felt back then maybe she chose to leave us. Leave me.”

“Did they ever find her?”

“Never did. Dad blamed himself. Stopped taking care of himself. I tried my best. Then one day, I came home from school and found him. His favorite pistol dangling from his stiff fingers.”

“Ah, girly.”

“I won’t ask you to fight the cancer. It’s yours. You deal with it how you want. But I would ask one thing.” She reached in her pocket. The bottle of painkillers rattled when she set them on the table. “Don’t use the pistol.”

Tears welled up in the old man’s eyes. He got up, and she met him halfway in an embrace. “I tried to teach you girly. To give you all I know.”

“You did it. I’ll be okay.” She didn’t cry. She wouldn’t let herself.

He finally let loose of her. “What will you do?”

“Everything.” She smiled and walked to the door.

He said, “Where will you go?”

She opened the door wide. “Everywhere.”

He heard her call behind her as she closed the door. “That’s my Kay.”

Rob D. Smith is just a common man attempting to write uncommon fiction in Louisville, KY. His work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Thriller Magazine, Revelations, and several other crime, horror, and speculative anthologies and online magazines. Follow him on Twitter @RobSmith3.



Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Delivery, fiction by Eric Beetner

             Lucy refused to hurry. If their food delivery got cold, that’s on them for being too damn lazy to come get their own burritos. Elgin, the boss/head chef/pain-in-her-ass, wouldn’t let her park in the lot behind the restaurant. It’s for customers, he’d say. So she walked two blocks down to her car with the plastic bag swinging in one hand while she tried to navigate her phone screen with her opposite hand to find the address of the delivery.

She wasn’t looking up when the voice made her stop.

Gimmie your money.”

There were two of them. Young males, t-shirts and baggy jeans, desperate dilated pupils vibrating in their skulls. She could almost hear the rattle of nerves. They weren’t experienced at robbery, but neither was Lucy experienced at being robbed.

The one who spoke had a gun. A dull black .22 that might not work, might not even be loaded, but she wasn’t about to find out over one burrito and a side of guac. The other one hopped on the balls of his feet, checking the area for prying eyes, cop cars, and whatever demons haunted him nightly. His hands were stuffed deep into the pocket of his hoodie and moved like he was rolling dice in there.

Lucy didn’t carry a purse. Not enough stuff to hold in there. Besides, purses cost money. Money she didn’t have. Wouldn’t be driving deliveries for a second-rate Mexican joint if she could afford a Kate Spade.

Guys, c’mon.” She held her arms out, trying to show them she wasn’t that different from them. Just a neighborhood girl doing her best, trying to make a few quarters to pay the rent. Same as them, she also wore a hoodie, also had shoes nearly worn down to the stitching.

But she knew the look in their eyes. They didn’t care about her, about her struggles, her single-digit bank account. They cared about the next baggie of rocks and the right dark doorway to smoke them.

Money. Now.”

He waved the gun like the tip of the needle on a seismograph. The quake was coming, and Lucy didn’t want to be in its path.

Whatever. Take it.”

She reached into her back pocket. Saw them flinch, thinking she had a weapon. She slowed and brought out her wallet, opened it, and removed the thin folded bills. The only thing left in the fake leather billfold was her driver’s license, insurance, and social security card, a picture of her late parents, and her one and only credit card, which wasn’t worth much more than the plastic rectangle it was made of. She flung the money out ahead of her, and all eight dollars landed on the sidewalk between them. The one without a gun lunged forward and snatched up the pathetic wad. Her night’s tips so far. All she had and all they were gonna get from her.

Both robbers had runny noses, scabby skin, pale even in the street lights.

Come on,” the one with the gun said. “All of it.”

That is all of it, dipshit. Who the hell do you think you’re robbing? I deliver takeout for fucks’s sake.”

She didn’t want to antagonize them, but she had given up giving a shit anymore. Shoot her, go ahead. Can’t stress about money from a hospital bed or a casket. Do me a favor, she thought.

Son of a…” Their movements got more animated. Eight bucks wasn’t going to get them the next score. But that was their problem, not Lucy’s.

The guy shoved her money into his front pocket and then jumped forward again and snatched the bag out of her hand. It tore as she tried to hold on to it, and the chips and guac fell to the sidewalk with a splat. He got the torn bag the rest of the way to him and cradled the burrito like a football.

Aw, come on,” she said.

They turned and ran into the darkness in a burst of adrenalin and the few lingering fumes of their last high.

Lucy was left on the sidewalk a block away from work, a smear of green on the sidewalk like an alien bloodstain and a pile of crushed chips the birds would feast on come morning, if the rats didn’t get them during the night.

She turned, slump-shouldered, and walked back to see Elgin and tell him what happened. She knew what he’d say. All lost orders had to be paid for out of the driver’s pocket. Her now empty pocket. His policy was designed to prevent hungry drivers from eating a customer’s meal and blaming it on the bag spilling when their car went around a tight corner. She knew he wouldn’t understand or be sympathetic to her being robbed any more than he would if she tripped and dropped a delivery in the gutter. If he had to make two meals, he was getting paid for two meals.

Plus, now she’d be so late on the delivery she could expect a dogshit tip.

Maybe it would have been better if the jittery kid had shot her.

While she waited for Elgin to cook up another burrito, Lucy sat and thought about her options in life. She came up blank after about ten seconds. She had no better way to make money if she didn’t want to turn tricks or strip. A friend had told her once she could make some cash selling platelets or blood, but that didn’t seem like a long-term solution.

She picked at the chipped finish on a table in the corner of the restaurant and listened to the insistent beat of Tejano music, trying not to cry.

Ten minutes later, Lucy stepped out with the re-made burrito and kept her head up. She pleaded her case, but Elgin did not care. The cost of the extra burrito was coming out of her pay for the night. She was too tired to argue with him.

She walked fast, head on a swivel, down to her car. Got in and locked the doors. Only then did she bring up her maps app and find the address. If she saw those two tweakers huddled in an alley somewhere, she swore she’d run them over, even if her eight bucks was long gone in a cloud of meth smoke.

A full thirty minutes after the order was placed, she knocked on the door of the apartment. It was on the second floor of a U-shaped stucco monstrosity with open walkways and dead potted plants at the top of every staircase. Out of open windows the sounds of six different TVs swirled around her in the night air like a swarm of mosquitos.

Come on in, it’s open,” a voice called from inside.

Tentatively she turned the handle. Letting herself in was not normally the way it was done, but she needed to hand off the bag if she wanted any sort of tip at all. She stayed outside and pushed the door open. One of the TVs was his.

The guy sat on a two-cushioned couch, the TV tuned to an MMA fight. Both of his legs were in casts. Lucy relaxed a little. The guy couldn’t get out to pick up his own burrito or even stand to answer his door. He was no threat, she decided and stepped inside.

Aw, thanks so much,” he said.

Sorry it’s so late.”

She held the plastic bag out in front of her and tried to get from his gestures where he wanted her to set it down. She aimed for the crowded coffee table in front of the couch. Empty soda cans and wrappers from his last few meals were scattered there.

Just set it there,” he said. Lucy made a small space between the junk and set the bag down.

Wow, that sucks,” she said, pointing to his legs.

Yeah.” He shrugged.

Nobody signed them.”


Nobody signed your casts.”

Oh.” He gave a weak smile. “I haven’t had any visitors.”

She’d given him enough time if he was going to give her a tip, he’d have done it by now. A half-hour for a burrito was too long, and she knew it. She didn’t blame the guy for stiffing her, even if it wasn’t her fault.

She gave him a small wave. “Okay, well, have a good night.”

Hold on, hold on.”

He reached under him and drew out a small wad of bills from a back pocket. He held out a five-dollar bill and leaned forward with it.

Oh. Thanks so much,” she said, and she leaned to meet him halfway and take it.

So you do deliveries all night?”

Yeah. It’s all right.”

I bet you know the whole city.”

I got maps on my phone.”

The fight on TV swelled to some kind of crescendo, and the announcers started yelling when one guy went down, and the other stood over him, hitting him in the headlong after it was clear the guy had gone unconscious.

You deliver, like, everything or just burritos?”

I mean, burritos, quesadillas, nachos…”

He smiled at her. He was kinda cute, but she wasn’t sure if this was flirting or if he’d just been laid up with no human interaction for too long.

No, I mean, like, do you deliver other things besides food?”

Oh. No. Not yet. Nobody asked me to. A buck is a buck though, right?”

Right. Exactly. Yeah.” Their polite laughs died down into an awkward silence. “I’m Miller, by the way.” He waved, too far away to shake hands. Lucy smiled politely. He was cute enough, but she was in no mood for a pick-up.


He shifted on the couch, trying to adjust his body to sit up straighter. “You wanna do me a favor and deliver something for me, Lucy?”

She was caught off guard. Her agreement with Elgin was loose. She wasn’t a regular employee. He paid her under the table, so he didn’t have much say whether she did other work on nights when she drove for him.

Like what?”

Just a thing I can’t get out of the house to drop off. You’d be doing me a favor.”

She pointed a thumb over her shoulder and took a step back toward the door. “I don’t know…”

I’ll give you fifty bucks.”

Her feet stopped moving. On TV, the ref stopped the fight, and the crowd went wild.

It was drugs. Had to be drugs. What else could it be? Some dude was willing to pay fifty bucks cash for a delivery at nine o’clock at night? Yeah, drugs.

What kind of drugs Lucy didn’t know and didn’t want to know.

Miller had handed her a backpack. It was about half full, not too heavy. It had been duct-taped into a solid brick, only the shoulder straps left out for easy carrying. There was no peeking at the package, not that Lucy would have.

She got back to her Tercel and set the backpack on the passenger seat, contemplated strapping it into the seatbelt, but thought that seemed crazy. She contemplated a few crazy things. Stuff like: take off and keep going. Fuck this town. Take her fifty bucks, check into a motel, open that bag, and see what she was dealing with. Then go sell it and start over somewhere new.

But she knew nothing about selling drugs. Had no idea what to charge. And what if it was just pot? That wouldn’t be worth much. The guy with the two broken legs didn’t seem like a big-time pusher, so whatever he’d entrusted a total stranger with couldn’t possibly be that valuable.

She’d make the delivery and keep the fifty as the best tip she’d ever gotten. It was a good night.

Lucy entered the address in her phone, and the calm female voice told her it would take a half-hour to get there. She could see why the guy couldn’t just walk it there on crutches. Elgin would be pissed if she didn’t come back tonight, but he closed at ten and screw him anyway. It took her two full nights of driving to make fifty bucks from Elgin.

She made it there in twenty-five minutes. The girl on the GPS wasn’t even impressed.

Lucy hoisted the backpack and knocked on the door to the house. It was single-level stucco Spanish style with dead grass in the yard and a waist-high chain-link fence around the property that did nothing to keep people out. She saw the house had a Ring doorbell and extra cameras under the porch overhang and at each corner of the roof. The neighborhood wasn’t the best, and this guy wasn’t taking any chances. Then again, he was most likely a drug dealer, so it was kinda his fault the block was not so safe.

A woman answered the door. She kept it open only a crack so Lucy could see one eye and one arm on the woman. That one eye was painted thick with eyeliner. Detailed tattoos ran down her arm and up over her shoulder, which Lucy could see under the straps of the woman’s tank top.

She waited for Lucy to speak.

I have a delivery.” She held up the backpack.

The woman’s painted-on brows arched in confusion.

I don’t know you.”

Miller sent me.”

The woman gave her a stare as sharp as a dagger. “Hang on.”

The door closed. Lucy waited, thought about dropping the bag and going home. The door pulled open wider now. The woman was there – black tank, black skirt, muscles moving under all those tattoos. She waved Lucy inside.

The place was lit like a nightclub. Black lights, tiny twinkle lights hanging off the edges of framed movie posters for Scarface, Heat, Texas Chainsaw 3-D. Heavy beats pumped from some speakers she couldn’t see in the dim light.

She tried to hold out the package to the woman. “I’m just gonna drop this and go.”

Moses wants to see you.”

Lucy had no idea who Moses was outside of the Bible but got the sense it didn’t matter because if he had summoned her, she was going. If this woman had anything to say about it. When she turned to lead the way into the back of the house, Lucy saw a pistol tucked in the back waist of her skirt.

She followed, wondering if fifty bucks was enough for this shit.

The master bedroom of the house had been turned into some sort of office/bachelor pad/BDSM dungeon. Sitting up on a king-size bed layered in silk sheets was a man who Lucy could barely make out at first; the lights were so dim, and the air was so thick with pot smoke.

A large aquarium tank sat on a black lacquered dresser and held an iguana that barely fit the tank. It sat perfectly still eyeing Lucy. When her eyes adjusted a little, she noticed Moses properly. He wore gold rings on each finger, even the thumbs. His robe was open down to his sternum, and shapes of unidentifiable tattoos peered out from under the purple silk.

So you workin’ for Miller, huh?”

His voice was smooth and all street. Laid-back like a man who knew he was in charge here. A low murmur of dub reggae played as a soundtrack to the smoke.

No, no,” Lucy said. “He just paid me to drop this off.” She held out the package, wishing like hell someone would take the thing away from her so she could leave.

Moses snapped his fingers once and beckoned the package forward. The woman from the front door finally took it from Lucy and handed it over. Lucy felt the relief in her arm muscles and in her chest as she exhaled. She tried not to breathe in too deep to avoid a contact high.

Moses didn’t open the package but hefting its weight a few times before tossing it to the end of the bed, where the tattooed woman scooped it up again and brought it to a desk in the corner. She pulled a knife from her pocket, thumbed it open and went about opening the package.

So you workin’ for Miller, but you don’t work for him?” Moses said to Lucy.

I don’t work for him. I brought him a burrito, and he paid me to bring you this.” She watched as the woman cut layers of tape away. “Can I go now?”

So you know where’s he’s at?”


Moses nodded slowly.

I guess so.”

How’s he lookin’?”

I don’t know. Okay, I guess.”

You guess?”

Yeah, for a guy with two broken legs.”

Moses smiled. Both of his top canine teeth were capped in gold. “That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.”

So I’m gonna go now,” Lucy said and turned.

It’s light,” the tattooed woman said. Lucy froze.

Shit, I knew that when I held it,” Moses said.

What’re you gonna do?” she asked.

Moses looked down at his hands and adjusted his rings. “I’m gonna finish what I started.”

Lucy took one step for the door.

Hold up.”

Lucy found herself in a moment where she had to decide whether to run or not. She’d seen the gun on the tattooed woman. Moses surely had more around here somewhere. Running was not an option. And no, this was not worth fifty bucks.

You say you know where he’s at?” Moses asked.

Yeah. I’ll give you the address.” She fumbled for her phone.

Moses snapped his fingers again. “Nah. You show me.”

Moses had stood and stripped off his robe down to silk boxer shorts. He pulled on a pair of Adidas trainer pants and a loose t-shirt. Lucy learned the tattooed woman’s name was Diamond. She learned this when Moses made Diamond take Lucy’s wallet and ID to hold.

You don’t need to do that,” Lucy said. “I’ll take you to Miller. I don’t even know the guy.”

And I don’t know you, so I don’t know who you know. And I don’t know what you look like when you lie to me. So I get insurance.”

Diamond dropped the wallet into the iguana tank. The lizard ignored it.

I’m just a delivery girl.”

So deliver me to him,” Moses said. He reached into the top drawer of the dresser and took out the biggest gun Lucy had ever seen. It was chrome plated and looked heavy, and the rings on his fingers made clicking noises when he moved it in his hand. Moses smiled at the gun and studied his reflection in the chrome.

Let’s roll.”

He stepped out into the hall. Lucy looked over her shoulder at her wallet, her ID, her one credit card, sitting in the bottom of that tank like it was a fake rock in the faux southwestern theme. She caught Diamond’s eye.

You better go,” she said. “Moses don’t like to wait.”

Lucy thought she saw some fear there. This wasn’t a devoted sycophant. Diamond might have started out the same as Lucy but never got away.

Is he gonna kill me?” Lucy asked.

Not unless you give him a reason.”

Lucy followed out the door.

Moses looked disgusted that he had to ride in a car as beat up and old as Lucy’s. He also held the air of someone who thought he deserved to be driven around anywhere he wanted to go.

Lucy kept a tight grip on the steering wheel and her eyes forward. The level voice of the GPS called out turns as it re-traced her route back to Miller’s apartment.

Moses took a joint from his pocket and lit it with a lighter shaped like a dragon who spit fire. Most of the smoke went out the open window, but Lucy knew her car would smell like pot for weeks. Or maybe the burritos would cover the smell quickly. If Elgin still had a job for her, that is.

Man owes me money, is what it is,” Moses said.

I didn’t ask.”

Yeah, but you oughta.”

Lucy ignored him and turned left when the GPS told her to.

You don’t like to know why you’re goin’ someplace when you go?” Moses asked.

I’m usually going someplace because someone ordered Mexican food and was too lazy or too stoned to pick it up themselves.”

Moses laughed a dry, wheezing sound. He took another drag.

He was late with what he owes me,” he went on. “That’s how his legs got the way they is. Now he makes a, whatcha call it – an olive leaf?”

An olive branch.”

Yeah, that. But he only pay me some. That shit don’t fly with me.”

So now you’re going to go try to collect money you know he doesn’t have? How does that work?”

You seen his legs, right?”

You gonna break them again?”

He got arms, don’t he?”

Lucy decided she preferred her policy of keeping quiet with Moses. Street lamps passed shadows and bars of light over the car. Outside, almost every place they passed was closed. It was late enough now that the city had turned over to the night shift. A whole different population came out at night. Lucy was usually one of them, but tonight the streets felt more dangerous. Maybe she would try to become a morning person.

Not a bad plan,” Moses said. “Use a delivery girl for drop-offs and shit.”

Not me.”

Why not you? I can pay you more than some taco joint.”

I don’t doubt that, but I get pulled over with a taco, and I don’t go to jail. I’m late delivering a burrito, and I don’t get shot.”

Man, what do you think my business is?”

I don’t know for sure, but I don’t want to know.”

You think I keep customers if I go around shooting everyone?”

Lucy squeezed the wheel tighter. “Okay, maybe I watch too much TV, but I still don’t want any part of delivering for you.” She worried she sounded too harsh, so she added, “No offense.”

What’s your name again?”


He puffed and exhaled. “You all right, Lucy. Yeah, you work for me now.”

She didn’t want to argue. Not right then. Miller’s apartment was up ahead, and she figured Moses would forget all about her once he got into it with Miller. She pulled to the curb.

That’s it up there. Apartment eight.” She pointed to the second floor.

Moses tossed the joint out the window and let the final lung of smoke push out of his mouth. “Okay, let’s go.”

I’m just dropping you off. I don’t need to go with you.”

Moses had one foot out the door. “You think he’s gonna answer the door if he hears it’s me?”

Hey, come on. This is far enough. I don’t have anything to do with this shit, okay? I brought you here. That’s it. That’s all.”

Lucy.” Moses smiled wide enough to show his gold caps. “What’d I say? You work for me now.” He lifted the chrome-plated gun, and it filled the space between them. He didn’t point it directly at her, just let it hang there.

Fifty lousy bucks. She should have said no.

Okay, fine. I get you to the door, and that’s it though.”

Her shaky voice behind the defiant words made him laugh. “Come on, Lucy.”

His bloodshot eyes checked every shadow and doorway as they approached. The building was quiet now. The TVs off for the night. Most people had real jobs in the morning, not whatever freelance work she was doing now for Moses. Why, damn it, why hadn’t those muggers shot her?

She stopped in front of apartment eight. Miller’s TV was still on. He had nowhere to be in the morning, she guessed.

What am I supposed to say? He already got his burrito.”

Just say something.”

Moses leaned in and tapped the barrel of the gun against the door three times. The TV went quiet, and there was a pause. Then Miller called out, “Who is it?”

Um, its Lucy. From before. With the burrito.”

Delivery girl?”

Yeah. It’s me.”

She could hear him stand and the clunk of his casts on the floor as he made his way to the door. Moses stepped aside so he wouldn’t appear in the peephole view. Lucy waved when she saw the light wink out in the tiny lens.

The deadbolt turned and she felt a sickening feeling that she’d just killed a man. Moses wasn’t here to break his arms. He’d never once put the gun away. Moses was here to kill Miller.

When the door pulled open, Miller had a smile on his face. “Hey there. I was hoping I’d see you again.”

Lucy made a decision she hoped she wouldn’t regret. She also knew that if it did get her killed, at least this would be over. Fifty bucks wasn’t going to solve her problems. Maybe she could sacrifice herself to save someone else. Trade her worthless life for his.

Miller, look out, he’s here to kill you.”

Before the smile could droop from Miller’s face, Moses had pushed off the wall and swung himself into the doorway. He kicked high and got Miller in the gut, knocking him back into the apartment. Moses shouldered Lucy out of the way as he pushed in, raising the gun as he charged forward.

Lucy knew she could run. She could get away from Moses before he had a chance to deal with her. She could get away and not have to see Miller’s head get blown off. But the only value her life had right then was in saving someone else’s. She followed them inside and shut the door behind her.

Moses stood over Miller, who was still trying to catch his breath from the kick. Moses pushed the huge gun into the prone man’s face.

You steal money from me, little fuck? You try to pay me back with pennies when you owe me dollars? Huh, little fuck?”

Lucy searched the room for a weapon, trying to keep to Moses’s back so he wouldn’t see her and turn his attention, and his gun, on her. She wasn’t sure what to expect – a gun rack on the wall? A knife block in the kitchen of someone who clearly never cooked his own meals?

Miller made whiny, pleading noises that sometimes morphed into words. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…I’m broke, man…I just…”

Moses kept berating him, threatening with the gun. He put a foot on one of the casts and Miller bit down hard on a scream of pain.

Lucy had moved to the far side of the couch. The flat-screen TV was paused on a reality show with big-breasted girls in bikinis on some tropical beach. Beneath the TV was another backpack like the one she had delivered. Same size, same wrapping.

Moses lifted Miller by his dirty t-shirt and set him on the couch. The shirt ripped at the collar. Miller was crying now.

You had two chances now,” Moses said.

I get three. Everyone gets three. Three strikes, man. That’s how it works.”

Moses punched the gun forward and hit Miller in the mouth with the barrel, cracking his front teeth.

Shut up.”

Lucy spoke in a high, excited tone. “I have it. I have the money.”

Moses and Miller both turned at the sound of her voice and saw her standing as a stark counterpoint to the screen next to her. Lucy in her oversized black hoodie and flat, black hair and the blondes frozen in mid-jiggle, their tan skin only barely covered by triangles of fabric. But she had something they didn’t have – a backpack full of cash.

She held it out in front of her proudly. She smiled, thinking she had just saved a life.

Moses smiled back at her, his gold caps catching a glint of light. “Lucy, my girl. I told you you work for me now.”

Lucy saw Miller move, his hand go to his cast. Where it met his thigh there was a gap. His hand pushed into the space there and came back with a small .38 revolver.

She had another choice, another potential life to save. She didn’t have time, though. Nor did she need to. Moses saw her face fall, and he knew he’d taken his eyes off Miller. He turned back, and at the same instant the two men’s eyes met again, Miller fired.

Moses pulled his own trigger a half-second later.

Moses was gutshot. Miller had been headshot. In a dying spasm, Miller’s hand contracted, and he fired another shot into Moses. Miller fell back onto the couch, half his head gone. Moses crumpled and folded in on himself, falling knees first to the floor and then toppling over.

Lucy stood in the echo of the shots for a second and then let the backpack drop to her side. People would be here soon. Neighbors, the cops. She made her next decision very quickly. Lucy bolted for the door and took the bag with her.

She knew the smart thing was to drop the bag and run. The running she could handle, but the bag was welded to her hand. Inside was everything she needed to start over. Everything except her IDs and wallet. Things the owners of this money could use to easily find her. Things they could use to ruin her life, to impersonate her, to do any number of things she hadn’t even thought about.

But hadn’t the owner of the money just died in front of her?

There was always someone else. Someone higher up. Someone with a bigger gun, though with Moses she doubted that was possible.

Lucy listened for sirens as she made her way back toward Moses’s place. By memory this time, no GPS lady required. She drove with one hand, the other still on the bag. She had no idea how much was inside, only that it amounted to several times her entire net worth at the moment.

But it would do her no good if they had her entire identity.

As she drove, she loosened her grip. The money wasn’t hers. It was soaked in blood. It could only bring trouble. More trouble than she’d already bought with it that night.

No matter what, she still got to keep the fifty bucks.

Lucy eased the car to a stop in front of Moses’s house. The steady red dot of the security camera on the porch watched her. She sat in the car for a while, thinking what she might say or do. Would Diamond give her ID back just for the asking? Would more people have shown up? Bigger, scarier people than Moses?

She longed for the misplaced confidence of the muggers from earlier in the night. But it wasn’t her.

Lucy got out, the bag still fused to her hand and walked to the front door. Diamond opened it before Lucy could knock.

What happened?”

Clearly, she didn’t expect to see Lucy and not Moses.

Shit got complicated.”

Diamond squinted over Lucy’s shoulder, trying to see if Moses was in the car.

Can I get my wallet back?” Lucy asked and held out the backpack.

Is he dead?”

Lucy nodded. Diamond looked like she might be sad for a second, but it faded. If anything, Lucy could see a weight lifted off her shoulders.


Lucy nodded again.

Diamond smiled. “That little fucker.” Diamond pulled the door open wide. “C’mon in.”

Look,” Lucy said. “All I want is my wallet and to get the hell out of here.” She set the backpack down on the floor.

It’s right where you left it.”

Not where I left it, where you put it, she thought. Lucy started down the hall. Diamond put a hand on her arm and stopped her. “He’s really dead?”

Yeah. Both did it to each other.”

Wow. And you saw it?”

I don’t think I’ll be able to un-see it.”

Diamond let her go, and Lucy walked back to the bedroom. She could see her wallet in the terrarium, and it looked like the iguana hadn’t moved a muscle. Lucy stepped close and felt the heat from the lamp behind the glass. She pushed open the vent at the top and the iguana lifted its head to see what the disturbance was. Lucy hesitated, but after the night she’d had, a bite from a lizard would be the best thing to happen to her that night.

She dipped her hand in an inch at a time until her fingertips could touch the wallet. She pinched it between her index and middle finger and lifted. The iguana watched her, unblinking.

Diamond had the bag open on the table in front of the couch. Stacks of cash were rubber-banded together.

Which one you want?”

Lucy crinkled her eyebrows at her. “Which one?”

I’m not sure how much is in either one. I didn’t get a chance to count it exactly. If this is everything between the two, it’s about fifty grand.”

You want me to take one?”

Shit, girl, you earned it. And I’m not greedy.” She went back to the stacks in front of her.

Looks like you’ve got that one handled.”

Other one’s back there.” She waved a hand vaguely back toward the bedroom. Lucy went back there, lifted the open pack, and zippered it shut, sealing the money inside. It made sense for her to keep this one. It was her original delivery.

Thanks,” she said as she passed by Diamond on her way to the door.

There’s ten times that hidden around here. Consider it a tip. Girl, you done me a favor like you don’t even know.”

I could say the same to you.”

Diamond had a smile on her face now as she licked her finger and kept counting bills. Lucy left and shut the door tight behind her, throwing a look over her shoulder to the security camera.

First stop, a gas station. Fill up and then see how far it would take her. Leave everything else behind. Wherever she ended up would be her new home. She could get a new job doing deliveries. Wasn’t such a bad job after all. At least the tips were nice.

Eric Beetner has been called “The 21st Century’s answer to Jim Thompson” (LitReactor) He has written more than 20 novels including All The Way Down, Rumrunners, and The Devil Doesn’t Want Me. His award-winning short stories appear in over three dozen anthologies. He co-hosts the podcast Writer Types and the Noir at the Bar reading series. For more visit