Sunday, August 14, 2022

Saviors, fiction by Sam Wiebe

Security must have fucked up.

He didn’t know how the girl snuck on set. But here she was, pushing her way into his trailer, rolling up her sleeve to show him her tattoo. 

“I’m so sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Chambers,” the girl said.

But you did, he thought. And now you’re going to eat up however many minutes of my time, my precious fucking prep time, telling me how much my stupid show means to you.

“I just had to meet you, Mr. Chambers—I mean Scott. I know you like your fans to call you Scott. I just had to meet you and tell you what you mean to me. And I had to help you.”

He smiled politely, thinking, Great. Here I am still hungover from last night because Carol, my on-screen mom, insisted on celebrating her last day on set. With my luck, this stupid show will get picked up for season—what? five? six?—and I’ll be seeing Carol again in eight months. Have to act more of those stupid kitchen scenes where I confide in her what a burden it is, being a teenager born with the collective powers of the Greek Pantheon. How many more years stuck in this stupid city where it rains all the goddamn time? Hollywood North my ass—

—and what was that shit the girl said about helping me?

”Girl” was a stretch. She could have been thirty, a decade older than him for all he knew. But a girl in her mannerisms, the jelly-legged way she gazed at him like he was a superior creature. A fangirl. Rail-thin and hawk-featured, her pale arms hanging out of the frayed cuffs of the grubby man’s shirt she wore.

Scott noticed the girl was holding a gun.

The tattoo on her arm was of him. A terrible likeness. Scott in the Captain Destiny uniform, cape billowing out behind him as he soared through the clouds. Christ.

She transferred the pistol to her left hand and began awkwardly rolling up the other sleeve.

“It was you that taught me to believe in myself,” she said, pausing for him to acknowledge the compliment.

“That’s very nice,” Scott said.

“Before I started watching, I was at loose ends. I admit it, I know it’s a sin, but I used to think about suicide. That’s how low I was. Then I heard about this show filmed right here in my hometown, and I started watching, and I saw you dealing with the same things I was. And everything started to hurt less, you know? It was a miracle, really. A miracle is the only way to describe it.”

Jesus, she was a fucking local.

Captain Destiny was filmed in a far-flung suburb of Vancouver. The town had one main street, one second-run theatre, eight churches, a race track, and a flea market. Part of Western Canada’s miniature Bible Belt. The town was a perfect stand-in for Smallville, Starling City, and Smith’s Landing, where Captain Destiny’s alter ego hailed from.

The locals seemed split between meth heads and Jesus freaks. This girl seemed to have claims to both camps.

On her other sleeve, the girl showed him a matching tattoo, a Kurt Cobain Jesus hanging off a wobbly-looking cross. The picture was little better than a stick figure, but each wound had been etched on Kurt’s body in glorious bright red detail. Above it, the word RE P e N T.

“It was through you that I reconnected with Him,” she said. “You saved me. And I’m here, Mr. Chambers, Scott, to do the same for you.”

Up till now, she hadn’t pointed the gun at him. The barrel had been pointed down a few feet to his side. Now she brought it up, using it to gesticulate as she spoke.

“You see,” she said, “I read up on you on the world wide web. I learned all about you. I rented the show you were on as a child. It was really good, you were really great even then.”

“Thanks,” he muttered, eyes on the gun.

“You’re welcome. I even watched the commercials you were in. The cereal one, you were very funny. You can do anything, Scott, if you put your mind to it. I hope you know that.”

“Thanks.”

“Yes. And it made me sad when I read that rumor about you. That you were—you know.”

She was blushing.

“That you were not into women. That you were--well.”

“Gay,” he said.

“Well, yes.”

Rumor. He hated to think of any part of himself as a rumor. He was proud of himself, would’ve been happy telling the world, and fuck ‘em if they didn’t want to watch his show.

But his manager had explained to him the demographics involved, the realities of show biz. “In a few years, Scottie, by all means, do what you feel is best. But your hit show is a hit because of women thirteen to thirty, and that’s a tough demo for a comic book show to hold. They want to keep certain fantasies about you, Scott...it’s just how it is...”

“How it is” meant broadcasting to the world he was something he wasn’t. Just another reason he hoped the network pulled the plug soon.

She was waiting for his answer, holding the gun loosely, aimed at his knees.

Scott said, “Yeah, it’s a rumor. I’m actually seeing someone. A girl. We’re thinking of getting married, in fact.” Anything to get her out of there.

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” she said. She raised the gun towards his chest, an accusatory finger of blued steel.

“You see, Scott, I want to believe you, but I was actually at the Chateau Vancouver last month. You were doing a signing in the city, remember, and I thought I’d come down. I was hoping we’d get a chance to talk then.”

Christ. Up till then he’d thought there was no real chance she’d hurt him. He’d dealt with crazies before. Now he felt his odds plummet and knew he’d have to get himself out of this.

“I was in the lobby,” the fangirl said. “I stayed there all night. I saw you come in late with that young man, and I saw you kiss him, and I waited and then in the morning, I saw you leave, and kiss him again goodbye and listen, Scott, don’t you know how that makes Him feel?” “Him who?” he said. “Makes who feel?”

“Jesus, silly. How it makes Jesus feel.”

He looked blankly at her, this fangirl, this woman who was here to kill him. She had tears in her eyes, and she was raising the gun.

Scott Chambers fell to his knees.

“I can’t help it,” he said. “I have these thoughts.”

“They’re the devil’s thoughts, Scott.”

“I know it. But I feel so weak. Please, please help me. You were sent here to help me, right? Sent here by Him?”

He was crying—turning on the waterworks had never been difficult. Yes, he was just a kid himself, and yes, he was on a crap superhero show shot in this pissant backwater town. But he’d known since childhood, since day one, that he could deliver when it counted.

But it didn’t hurt that he was scared shitless.

“Will you help me?” he said in his best broken voice. “Will you—will you pray with me?”

It was working‑the barrel drifted downward. The girl sank to one knee, her eyes as round and luminous as the rose windows in a Gothic cathedral.

“Ask him,” she said. “We’ll both ask. He’s mighty, but he’s forgiving.”

Scott lowered his head, leaving his eyes open just enough to watch the gun. He prayed for real. Dear Lord, if you’re there, and you’re not the asshole these bigots and homophobes make you out to be...a little assistance here...

“Lord,” the girl intoned in a full, sonorous voice. “Lord, we ask that you guide Scott here—that you cleanse him—that you—”

She broke off, disturbed by the knocking on the door. The loud caffeinated tapping of Stacey, the director’s assistant.

“Hey Scott,” Stacey called out. “Sorry to disturb you. This a good time?”

He froze, not knowing if the girl would shoot him for speaking.

“Joyce wants to go over the blocking for the fight with Kid Achilles. She says fifteen minutes, if that’s okay with you.”

He looked to the girl, who  had the gun pointed at his throat. She gave no sign how she wanted him to answer.

“Scott, everything okay?” Silence for a moment. Then Stacey opened the door.

Percussion and light, then a howling pain from his scalp. The fangirl had shot him.

Blood was in his eyes and he couldn’t see much. Through the pain he could hear the woman snarling, furniture being toppled. Stacey struggled with her, wrested the gun from her hand. He heard it hit the carpet.

Scott swept his hands out, feeling for the weapon. Caught the warm barrel with his fingertips, dragged it back to where he could get his hand around the grip.

The fangirl barreled into him with a linebacker’s force. The gun went who knows where. He felt her fists on his cheeks, his eyes. He reached and grabbed for her throat and held on till she bit him.

Flailing elbows broke his feeble chokehold. He knew she was now picking up the gun. He heard her cock it. His hands flew up instinctively to his face, impotent protection from the gunshot he knew was coming.

There was a loud shhh-chunk and the sound of particleboard being smashed. Stacey hit her with a drawer from the dressing table.

A moment later the security guards  dragged the woman out, telling Scott the police are on their way, and sir, we are so, so sorry about all of this.

The set medic, Danny, treated and bandaged him. Scott asked him to describe the damage.

“It’s a deep crimson furrow,” Danny said, “still spurting rivulets of blood.” Of course, Danny would describe it poetically; he’d been haranguing Scott at Craft Services every morning to read his fucking screenplay.

“Will it leave a scar?” Scott demanded.

“There’s significant tissue damage,” Danny said. “I’m not a doctor, in fact my taking first aid was mostly for research purposes. But I think yeah, it’s a scar. Scott, I’m very sorry.”

Don’t be, Scott felt like saying. A scar! It was his ticket out of the show. No way the network would want a scarred leading man. And even if they did, he could say the trauma was too much to continue.

No more teen heart-throb. He’d be a scarred, brooding character actor—he’d be taken seriously. And off-camera he could be himself.

Scott Chambers smiled and wondered if maybe there was someone watching out for him after all.


Sam Wiebe is the award-winning author of the Wakeland novels, one of the most authentic and acclaimed detective series in Canada, including Invisible Dead, Cut You Down, and Hell and Gone. Wiebe’s other books include Never Going Back, Last of the Independents, and the Vancouver Noir anthology, which he edited. 


Monday, August 8, 2022

Owl Be Damned, fiction by Nikki Knight

A Jaye Jordan Vermont Radio Mystery


 Everybody loves a snowy owl.

 At least everybody I want to know. Nobody I want to know loves murder, though, and that sure took the joy out of Blanche’s visit to Simpson. 

 But in January in Vermont, you take what you get.

 January’s pretty ugly here. Figuratively, anyhow. Literally, it’s spectacularly beautiful, with thick, deep snow, shimmering blue skies, and flaming sunsets. As long as you don’t mind being reminded of why some cultures believe in a Hell of Cold.

 Ugly is exactly the right word for two big storms in a week, followed by a cold snap. Uglier for me, since I had to sweep that snow out of the satellite dish on the roof to keep my little radio station on the air. 

 Just another fun day of running WSV, the tiny operation I bought and took live and local again when my husband survived cancer but our marriage didn’t. My daughter is happy here, and the station is getting by…and that’s about all I want to say about it.

 I’m Jaye Jordan, by the way. Yes, my real name – people always wonder with DJs. Western PA country girl made good as a New York City jock before my life unraveled. I’m the one who just keeps going, no matter what.

 But January is wearing.

 Which is why pretty much everyone went nuts when the snowy owl showed up near the WSV transmitter shack out on Quarry Road. Anything at all to break up the monotony of shoveling, sweeping and scraping. Especially if it’s something as magnificent as a snowy owl.

 Blanche, as we inevitably christened her when birdwatcher Willard Collier pointed out that her gray-barred markings meant she was female, was the toast of the town within about fifteen minutes.   

 And my usually deserted stick (radio slang for transmitter) was the most popular hangout around, with folks driving and hiking up, coming close enough to see her – but not to scare her away.

 That Saturday afternoon, my pals and I had finished our weekly yoga class at the Community Center, when Sadie Blacklaw waved the keys to her Hummer. “C’mon. No one else will be there right now because the Patriots are the early game.”

 None of us really wanted to ride in the Hummer, a genuine military surplus one that Sadie had gotten through her many connections as Town Clerk and legendary local leader. She drives like Speed Racer on meth.

 But, Maeve, Alicia, and I definitely did want to see Blanche, and that was worth the risk.

 Too bad she wasn’t the first thing we saw when we wobbled out of the Hummer, crunching into the slushy tire and boot prints, an indistinguishable mess now two days after the latest storm. 

 No, while Blanche was perched on the corrugated-metal roof of the shack, her feathers fluffed up by the breeze, her vivid orange eyes glowing with something that sure seemed like annoyance, but the attention-getter was the guy on the ground.

 He was crumpled onto a drift at the edge of the lot, half on his side, one hand reaching toward the shack. It was Willard Collier, the birdwatcher, who’d been hiking up every day from his house a half-mile away. And I was pretty sure he was dead.

 “Call George!” Sadie said to Alicia, referring to her husband, Police Chief George Orr. “You’re still current on CPR, right, Jaye?”

 “Yeah.” I kept up my certification because of my tween daughter. Mom thing. If you have it, you won’t need it.

 I’ve never been so glad that it was her weekend with her dad. 

 “Good. Me too.” Sadie gave me a shove. “Let’s go. Two-man is better than one.”

 “What about me?” Maeve asked.

 “Reverend, you do your thing.” 

 Maeve, the Reverend Collins, is indeed a duly ordained Episcopal priest, despite enviable skills with profanity, makeup, and drinking. I’m Jewish, but I’m pretty sure she has a direct line to Whoever’s up there.

 As Sadie and I turned the guy over, his camera fell out of his hand, skidding over a patch of frozen coffee to smack into the thermos.

 First time in history coffee didn’t make things better.   

 Something about the camera didn’t look right to me, but it wasn’t the time. 

 “I’ll start with breaths,” I offered.

 “No, you’re stronger. You do compressions.” 

 Without even a blink, Sadie reached in and cleared the airway, and got down to it.

 I started compressions. I’m not just stronger. I’m bigger – a lot taller than most of my friends, at six feet. 

 We reached the first pause, where you’re supposed to check the person and see if they’re breathing on their own.

 “Nothing.” Sadie shook her head.

 Maeve, who’d been quietly watching from a few feet away, moved a little closer as we started again.

 I heard her soft, clear voice beginning the prayers for the dying just before the siren’s wail tore through the cold, still air.


##

  

 That evening, I was back in the studio, finally warm again thanks to double layers of fleece and most of a pot of coffee. I’d just finished a break and started the standard nightly spin of “You’re the Inspiration,” this time for a milestone anniversary couple, when Alicia Orr appeared.

 Many weekdays, she drops by for a coffee after working late at the local bank, where she’s a vice president. Sometimes weekends, too, especially when her husband, Police Chief George, is busy, as he sure was tonight. But her troubled expression was different.

 I didn’t remark on her new coral down coat and harmonizing striped fleece, which made her ebony skin glow. She’d wear it again – and it’s better to give a compliment when people will hear it. 

 With the coffee poured, another pot brewing, and the next song (overwrought Celine Dion for a depressed dump-ee) started, we settled in for a talk.  

 “Nasty thing today at the shack,” she said neutrally, though her expression wasn’t neutral at all.

 “Sad.”

 “Probably just sad, yeah.”

 I waited. 

 “Did you sense anything off?” she asked.

 “Um…” The camera hadn’t looked right to me, and we’d all been a little bothered by the way Willard Collier’s daughter had so coolly said she was glad her dad died doing what he loved.

 Everyone grieves differently, and it’s not necessarily a sign of anything.

 That’s what I had very firmly told myself.

 After all, some people can’t understand how I can joke about getting my husband through cancer only to get dumped, but humor keeps me from harming anyone. Probably myself. So I wasn’t going to judge. 

 Still, I’d never seen anyone’s eyes light up at the sight of their relative on a gurney,nd I’d spent enough time in the chemo suite to see a whole range of reactions. 

 Alicia watched me, and nodded.

 “Here’s the deal, Jaye,” she said, speaking slowly and carefully. “I know something that makes me suspicious. But I know it because I work at the bank, and I can’t break confidentiality.” 

 “And the Chief…” I started.

 “Will very rightly do nothing on the basis of his wife’s gut.” She shrugged. “I’m not thrilled with him, but he can’t open a criminal case because I’ve got a bad feeling and the daughter acted like she’d won the lottery.”

 “True.” I took a sip of my coffee, thought about what I’d seen when Sadie and I started CPR. “What if there was something inconsistent in the scene?”

 “Like what?”

 “Like the camera was not set up for what he was supposed to be doing.”

 Her eyes lit up. “Really?”

 “My uncle’s hobby is wildlife photography, and I know just enough to be dangerous. He explained his new camera to Ryan and me when he was up here at Thanksgiving.”

 “And poor Mr. Collier’s camera?”

 “Didn’t look right to me. But I’m not the expert. Why don’t I call Uncle Edgar and run it past him…and then get back to you?”

 “I like it.” She drank a little more of her coffee. “Thanks, Jaye.”

 “Glad to. It’s always good to have an excuse to talk to Uncle Edgar.”

 She smiled, knowing I was telling the absolute truth.

 Alicia stayed for a bit more coffee, and a little relaxing talk of moisturizers and long underwear, the two main topics of discussion for women in Vermont this time of year. Once she left, I picked up the phone.

 “Jacks!” Uncle Edgar roared. He’s the only person on earth allowed to call me that, as the closest thing I have to a father. I’m the closest he has to a daughter, since he had two sons with Aunt Mellie before she ran off with the urologist. (Don’t go there.)

 “Hey. How are you and Mom liking January in Palm Fountains?” He and my mother retired at roughly the same time, and they’re now enjoying a very late adolescent rebellion as a brother-and-sister act in their Florida senior development.

 “A little chilly. Only seventy yesterday.”

 “I think I hate you.” 

 “Well, I envy you. You have a gorgeous snowy owl up there. And you’ve only sent me one picture?”

 “I’ll get some more.” I am not the family photog, but I absolutely did owe him pics. 

 “You’d better. Maybe Judy and I fly up for a quick visit.”

 “We would love that.” Mostly. I didn’t even have to cross my fingers. “But I wanted to ask you something. A man collapsed and died near the shack earlier today, and-”

 “Oh, that’s too bad, Jacks. You all okay?

 “It was sad, but we’re fine. It’s just…”

 “You think there’s something hinky?” Uncle Edgar did thirty years with the Mineral County Sherriff’s Department. I could practically hear the click as his cop radar came on.

 “Well, I’m not a hundred percent sure, but his camera looked wrong to me, and I think I know why.”

 “Tell me exactly what it looked like…”

 I did. He agreed with me.

 Alicia was glad to hear it…and so was Chief George. 


##


 Sunday afternoon found us once again at the shack. This time, it was Maeve, freshly changed from vestments to fleece, picking us up in her old green SUV for a much safer trip, even if Sadie groused a little about it having less power on the hill than the Hummer did. 

 Blanche was back to the front of the shack, enjoying a patch of sun. 

 Enjoying more than that. 

 “Get the pic, Jaye!” Sadie called from the backseat. “She’s eating!”

 I’d had my cellphone ready because you never know when you might get a good shot of Blanche. I didn’t really want one with a rodent tail sticking out of her beak, though – that was more Uncle Edgar’s speed.

 As we got out of the SUV, Blanche finished her meal and shot me a glare. 

 I’d have to apologize to her later. 

 Everyone who wasn’t a vole had more serious things to worry about just then. The Simpson cruiser was on the other side of the little gravel parking area, and Chief George was leaning against it, just watching Blanche and observing the scene with his usual former NYPD cool and intensity. It’s always fun to watch him, and reactions to him, since most Vermont towns do not have a six-foot-three Black guy in a leather trenchcoat as their top cop. 

 This appeared to be pretty much the usual owl fan club: a small knot of local folks at the back of the parking area, standing and observing, or occasionally taking a picture, all trying to be as unobtrusive (to Blanche) as possible.

 Except for the woman at the front of the lot.

 She couldn’t be unobtrusive if her life depended on it.

 Standing by her white SUV, wrapped once again in her urban-fashionable silver puffer, her expensively highlighted brown hair wafting lightly in the wind, Jennee Collier (two N’s and three E’s please, she’d said yesterday as Chief George asked her whether her late father had been in poor health) was placing a bouquet, down on one knee in the chunky slush.

 I was honestly surprised that she was willing to get parking lot slop on her expensive yoga pants. Jennee was off in a lot of ways: that stupid white SUV that showed every bit of slush and muck, clothes always expensive and impractical, and hair and makeup far too much for Simpson. I’d always idly wondered how she afforded it on a teacher’s aide’s salary, and just figured there was family money around somewhere.

 Now I suspected something else.

 “What’s going on?” Maeve whispered.

 “Wait and see,” Alicia replied, sending her husband a glance and getting a nod. “Must have gotten his warrant.”

 Sadie’s eyes widened a little, and she smiled. “Looks like Blanche’s lunch isn’t the only show.”  

 Jennee stood, and glanced back at what had probably been an appreciative, or at least neutral, audience when she knelt. Not so much now. Her carefully sad face changed at the sight of Chief George and Alicia, hardening into something else for an instant before she snapped back into reality-TV mournfulness, complete with quivering lip. Maeve probably recognized the brand and color of the shimmery nude lip gloss; I just knew it was better than the usual drugstore stuff.

 “Ms. Collier.” Chief George didn’t raise his voice; it just carried across the parking lot in the chilly air. 

 “What?” She tried for innocent. “Is there something else? I’m just paying tribute to Dad where he had the heart attack.”

 She carefully wiped an eye. There was no actual moisture that I could see.

 A little too obvious, I thought. 

 “About that, Ms. Collier.” Chief George took a step toward her. 

 She stepped back. “I didn’t do anything.”

 Her brittle voice gave her away.

 “I’ve seen the bank records, ma’am. Your father found out what you’d been doing, didn’t he?”

 “No! He said I could use the money for whatever I needed.” She looked at Alicia, with a snort. “Shows what you know.”

 Alicia shrugged, not taking the bait. 

 “He collapsed from a heart attack while he was out taking pictures,” Jenee said, nodding firmly like a determined toddler.

 “Not with that camera, he wasn’t,” I snapped. I’d had enough attitude.

 Jennee’s eyes widened.

 “It probably looked good to you when you put it together. But it was the wrong lens. That was a big zoom lens. It’s for distance shots.”

 She made a flapping wave at the shack. “That’s a distance.”

 “Not that kind of distance,” I said quietly. “Any decent photog wouldn’t even bring that lens out for this.”

 “Well, he wasn’t that good-”

 “He was amazing,” Sadie said. “I have one of his pictures of a great blue heron in my living room. Jaye’s right. He would never have used the wrong lens.”

 Chief George unclipped the cuffs from his belt.

 Jennee let out a howl.

 That was enough for Blanche.

 The giant owl took off with a bloodcurdling cry, and strafed toward us.

 Everyone ducked. 

 Jennee shrieked again, and didn’t duck far enough, because we all heard Blanche’s talons ripping the back of that silver puffer as she flew past.

 For the next minute or so, most of us were busy: the Chief helping Jennee up – and then hooking her up, Alicia watching them, Maeve making sure Sadie didn’t fall on the slick parking lot, and Sadie trying to shake free. I was the only one who got a good look at Blanche as she landed.

 The owl was maybe twenty feet away from me, and she shot me a sharp glance with those big orange peepers. I managed to whip out the phone in time…and clicked off a couple of pics. Who knew if they’d be good, but she was so close I had to try.

 As we all straightened up and dusted ourselves off, Alicia elbowed me.

 “Thank you for being a friend.” 

 “Blanche too.” I grinned. “Love the Golden Girls reference.”

 “Just don’t sing it.”


##


 Back at the station, a couple of hours later, I sent my hard-won shots to Uncle Edgar. 

 “Nice pics.”

 “Nice info on the lens.”

 “So what was it?”

 “Money. Seems she’d been quietly stealing from dad for a while, and when they went to move money from savings into a joint account, dad found out. He covered for her, but it was obvious to Alicia.”

 “And, of course, Alicia couldn’t tell you.”

 “Nope. Confidentiality.”

 “But the lens was enough to get a warrant for the records, right?” he asked.

 “Yep. And run a quick tox screen.”

 “Fentanyl?” he asked.

  “That’s the one. Apparently fed it to him in his breakfast and dumped him at the shack.” I sighed. “Too many opioids are too easy to get around here.”

 “Everywhere, Jacks.”

 We were both silent for a moment, as I thanked the Lord that he’d gotten out before the worst of it, and I suspect he did too.

 “Good thing you’ve got an eye,” he said finally.

  I laughed. “I just remember stuff.”

 “Got a pretty good shot of your owl, too, Jacks.”

 “Guess so.”

 A few minutes later, after we hung up, I looked at the picture again. I’d caught her with one eye closed. Winking. 

 As usual, Blanche was smarter than the rest of us. 

 

 

Nikki Knight describes herself as an Author/Anchor/Mom…not in that order. An award-winning weekend anchor at 1010 WINS Radio in New York, she writes short stories and novels, including LIVE, LOCAL, AND DEAD, a Vermont Radio Mystery from Crooked Lane, and as Kathleen Marple Kalb, the Ella Shane Historical Mysteries for Kensington. Her stories are in several anthologies, and she was a 2022 Derringer Award finalist. She, her husband, and son live in a Connecticut house owned by their cat.


Monday, August 1, 2022

The Baltic Dry Index, fiction by Michael Niemann

It was well after dinner, and I waited for Melbourne in my hotel room. “I should be there no later than ten,” he’d said. When midnight came, I was getting antsy and stepped onto the rusty balcony. The hotel wasn’t in the tourist quarter of Djibouti City. People were lounging on stoops along the street below. It was April, and I suppose too hot inside. Yesterday’s rain reflected a luminescent sky in the potholes. A moped sputtered toward the harbor.  

There was no sign of Melbourne anywhere.

Of course, he could’ve been delayed at the airport. Traveling with multiple passports in 2009 required a bit of discipline. By then, even small countries could receive the passenger information transmitted by the airlines right after departure. Checking in with one passport and presenting the other upon arrival could raise eyebrows, not that the immigration authorities of Djibouti were known for their facial expressions. Besides, Melbourne had come and gone so often these past months, he probably was on a first-name basis with whoever swiped his documents through the scanner. 

I went back inside and stared at my phone. Melbourne’s protocol was, “Don’t text me. I’ll text you. Unless it’s an emergency.” Trouble was, his definition of emergency was as flexible as the sealant bulging from the frame of the balcony door. He could be frantic when the situation was perfectly normal but also calm even though circumstances had careened out of control. 

Better give him more time. Melbourne could get rather unpleasant if he were disturbed at the wrong moment. That left me sitting in my stifling room with a useless air-conditioner. I needed a drink.

 I went downstairs. Out on the street, a neon sign flashed in the distance. Only the letters ‘B’ and ‘R’ were illuminated. I figured the chances of the middle letter not being an ‘A’ were pretty slim. As I approached, I saw pale light spilling from the door, illuminating drinking patrons outside.

I heard rapid steps behind me. I stopped dead in my tracks. The steps didn’t and someone bumped into me. I spun around, ready to grab whoever was there.

He was a stocky Somali, startled by the sudden impact. He raised his hands, palms out, and said, “Pardon.”

“What do you want?”

 “Cherchez-vous Monsieur Melbourne?”

“Do you know where he is?”

He turned and pointed to the opposite end of the street.

“Where is Melbourne?” I said.

“Oui, oui. Monsieur Melbourne.” He took my arm to coax me toward the intersection. I pushed him away. He let go and marched toward the corner. The take-it-or-leave-it attitude told me he was for real.

He brought me to the Boulevard Hassan Goulet, a main thoroughfare of Djibouti. Even at this hour, car and bus traffic was thick. I asked if Melbourne had sent him.

“Monsieur Melbourne est mort,” he said.

#

Melbourne dead? My throat turned dry as dust. It made no sense. He was a small trader, putting together deals with other people’s money for mutual profits. He wouldn’t show up on anyone’s radar because he was a small fish in a vast ocean. Had he started hanging out with sharks? 

A deep breath helped calm the rat’s nest of thoughts zinging through my brain. 

A while ago, Melbourne had come across an esoteric item called the Baltic Dry Index. Outside the world of transoceanic shipping, nobody knew about it or couldn’t have cared less if they did. The Baltic Dry Index denoted the cost of shipping dry bulk goods across the oceans. It was calculated daily, based on the cost for representative routes and ship sizes.

The thing that intrigued him most was something called Forward Freight Agreements, basically a way to bet on the value of the Baltic Dry Index at some point in the future.

“You can get in on the action without ever actually having to ship anything,” he’d said. “You put a little money down, and with the right trades, it’s an outstanding opportunity.”

“For what?” I said.

“To make money.”

“On freight futures? You’ve got to be kidding. You’re more likely to lose your shirt.”

That was back at my club in London. I looked at the three empty glasses in front of me. My usual dose was two Scotch, neat, water on the side. Three, when the mood was right. It was often right with Melbourne.

“Listen, old chum,” he’d said. “I know I’ve spun plenty of yarns, and you’ve been more than kind to indulge me over the years. But this ain’t no yarn. I’ve got a plan.”

I should’ve paid my tab then and gone home. 

Instead, I ordered another Scotch, neat, water on the side, and listened to him. Which is how I ended up in Djibouti, standing by a busy road, wondering how he could be dead.

The Somali hailed a cab and held open the door. I suppose I could’ve declined, but I needed to know what happened to Melbourne. I got in. He joined me and told the driver, “Hotel Kempinski.”

#

The Hotel Kempinski hovered like a mirage above the ocean. Built at the tip of the peninsula that was the city of Djibouti, it invited comparisons to minor British palaces. 

Despite the hour—past two in the morning—it was lit up as if heads of state with large entourages were about to arrive. The taxi stopped near an entrance. The Somali got out. I scrambled after him. He pointed to the cab driver. 

Of course. I had to pay. 

Sensing my inclination to marvel at the columns, chandeliers, and gilded reception desks inside, he grabbed my arm firmly and pulled me along.  About a mile later, he pushed me through a double door into what looked like a somber gathering. 

Some twenty or so attendees—mostly men—stood around. Africans, Arabs, and some from farther afield. The sideboard held plenty of alcohol. But for the missing coffin, it could’ve been a wake.

The swoosh of the door stopped the hum of conversations. The gathering focused on me, didn’t see anything exciting, and went back to talking. The stocky Somali let go of me. I stood by myself for a long moment until a Black woman came toward me. She had dark eyes and dark hair in a medium length cut that looked scruffy enough to have been expensive. Her beige suit was expertly tailored. Under the jacket she wore a taupe blouse with a yellow silk scarf, quite the splash of color in an otherwise drab room.

“Did you know Melbourne well?” she said, eyebrows raised. Her American drawl was unmistakable.

“As well as anyone, I suppose.” I looked around. “And you are?”

“Janice Franklin.”

“A friend of Melbourne’s?”

“We’re all friends of Melbourne.”

“What happened to him? He phoned me two days ago, just before I left London. He sounded fine.”

“Oh, it was rather sudden. Car accident.”

“When?”

“This morning…” She checked her watch. “…uh, yesterday, around ten.”

“And all of you knew him?” I said.

The woman nodded. “Some better than others.” A smile played around the corners of her mouth.

“Where’s his body?”

“In the morgue. The funeral is scheduled for eleven today.”

“That’s fast. Wasn’t there an investigation?”

“Of what? A car hit him. The driver got away. Nobody saw anything. In this climate it’s best to get a body into the ground fast.”

A hit-and-run? No investigation? That all seemed a bit hurried. But it was hot. I suppose the morgue couldn’t hold on to bodies forever.

“You’re a long way from home. What was your connection to Melbourne?” I said. 

“I had a professional interest in his doings.”

“Trader? Investor?”

“Not quite. But you are. Both trader and investor. Word is you backed his scheme.”

“Not really. I had some spare pounds and thought I’d play along. It was really his show.”

She raised her eyebrows, indicating she knew more than she was letting on.

“Did anyone inform his family?” I said.

“Did he have any? I found no next-of-kin information among his possessions.”

“So you knew him well enough to have access to his things?”

The smile returned but she didn’t take the bait. Instead, she said, “Will you come to the funeral?”

“Yes, of course. Where will it be?”

“At the European Cemetery.”

I thanked her and stepped to the credenza. They had my favorite Scotch. 

A tall Somali joined me. I nodded and added a splash of water.

“You are Melbourne’s friend from London?” he said. He sounded more Oxford than Mogadishu.

I turned and looked him over. Dark eyes, oval face sporting a smile, close-cropped hair, no beard. His suit was even finer than the woman’s. Steel gray with a hint of a pinstripe, made of the thinnest wool, perfect for this climate. Under the jacket, a blindingly white shirt. No tie.

“I am,” I said. “Who are you?”

“I’m Dawal. When did you arrive?”

“In the afternoon.”

“How are you liking Djibouti?”

“It’s fine so far. How did you know Melbourne?” I said.

“I represent certain interests. Melbourne had dealings with us.”

“What kind of interests?”

“The maritime kind.”

“Oh. Shipping and such?” I said.

His smile dimmed by a couple of watts. “Tangentially, yes. Didn’t Melbourne tell you about us?”

“Uh, no. Should he have?”

“Yes, since you backed him. He owes us a fair amount of money.”

“And who is ‘us’ again?”

The smile returned. “Certain Somali interests.”

I took a sip of my drink and pretended to savor the whisky while sorting out the new information. Somalia hadn’t been a country for almost twenty years. After Siad Barré was ousted, the country devolved into a patchwork of competing authorities based on clan allegiances. Puntland and Somaliland had split off completely. What Somali interests could there be?

“Tell me more about those Somali interests,” I said.

Dawal cocked his head. “You aren’t working for the British government?”

The cat was out of the bag. What had Melbourne gotten himself into?

“I can assure you I’m not. I’m a trader. Like Melbourne.”

Dawal nodded. “I represent a number of Somali entrepreneurs.”

“Of the maritime kind?”

“Yes.” He smiled benevolently.

“The kind of maritime entrepreneurs the rest of the world calls pirates?”

“A very unfortunate term. They call themselves the Somali Coast Guard.”

“That may have been accurate when they chased Chinese fishing trawlers from their waters, but holding cargo vessels hostage for ransom changed the nature of the activity, didn’t it?”

His smile widened. “That’s what Melbourne said as well. He proposed an alternate means of generating profits, involving something called the Baltic Dry Index.”

The pleasant buzz of my drink vanished. 

As Dawal told it, Melbourne had proposed a deal identical to what he’d promised me. Piracy had driven up shipping costs. The Baltic Dry Index was climbing. He took my money to bet against that, hoping piracy would vanish and prices would come down. A risky bet, yes, but plenty of warships had come to stop piracy in the Gulf of Aden, so it wasn’t crazy risky.

Apparently, he’d taken the pirates’ money as well, promising them riches if they stopped attacking the shipping routes. That was crazy risky.

“You were his partner, no?” Dawal said.

“Not as such. We worked together on occasion, but we were never partners.”

“But you gave him his capital.”

“I did not. I invested a modest sum and wanted to see how he was doing. I’m in the same position as you. He took my money, and now he’s dead.”

The smile never left his face. Either he had a perennially sunny disposition, or was a tough negotiator. “Then we have a mutual interest in finding out where the money is now.”

The Somali who’d brought me to the Kempinski appeared by his side.

“Please accept our hospitality at the Sheraton Hotel,” Dawal said. “We’ve taken the liberty of moving your things already. This is Siyaad. He’ll accompany you.” 

#

The Sheraton was much nicer than my previous accommodation. I slept reasonably well, despite the fact that my relocation had been involuntary and Siyaad was sitting outside my door. At nine o’clock, there was a loud knock. I got up, put on the hotel robe, and checked. Siyaad smiled and said I had thirty minutes to get ready. Since I didn’t travel with funeral clothing, a shower and a fresh shirt had to do.

I grabbed a coffee and a croissant from the breakfast buffet before Siyaad hustled me out of the hotel and into a waiting car. The driver peeled out and quickly merged onto the Boulevard du Général de Gaulle. 

The New European Cemetery was initially created for the Foreign Legion, later it served Allied forces as a final resting place during World War II. Now ordinary Europeans were interred there. 

The driver drove past a chapel and stopped a hundred yards further near a freshly dug hole. The crowd from the wake milled about, waiting. 

Off to the side stood a trio that included Janice Franklin, who wore another fetching outfit. The same couldn’t be said for the two men. The sandy-haired fellow had MI-6 written all over him. The other man with the pencil mustache was probably a French spook. 

She walked over to me. “I see you’ve made some local friends. That went fast for someone claiming he didn’t know what Melbourne was up to. “

“They reached out. I couldn’t really decline.”

She raised her eyebrows again. “And yet you insist you didn’t know what Melbourne was up to?”

“He had a plan, but I didn’t know about these local connections.”

“Hmm.”

“Are you CIA? Your companions sure look like spooks.”

“Treasury Department, FinCEN.”

“Vincent?”

“Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. Looks like you’re in trouble. Tell me what you and Melbourne were up to and I can get you out of here.”

“I would, believe me, but I don’t know what he had going.”

 “When did you last speak with Melbourne?”

“I haven’t seen Melbourne in weeks. He phoned me two days ago, said he’d meet me at the hotel last night.”

“And he didn’t show.”

“No, instead Siyaad brought me to the Kempinski. Why is everyone after Melbourne?”

“He showed up, made a lot of waves, and plenty of enemies.”

“Who are his enemies?” I said.

Her head motioned to the attendees. “All of them.” 

“I thought they were his friends.”

Franklin smiled again. “I’m afraid you’re it.”

“Why all this enmity?” I said. “He’s too small a fish to roil this much ocean.”

“Stop pretending,” she said. “A lot of people want their money back. They think you know where it is.”

“What? That’s preposterous.”

My protestations barely covered the panic that was pushing my pulse up.

Fortunately, a grizzled European wearing priestly garb emerged from the chapel. Two African altar boys accompanied him, one carrying a cross, the other energetically swinging an ornate censer. Behind them, four men carried a plain coffin. They approached the grave, stopped, and placed the coffin on planks lying across the hole.

The prayer was offered in Latin. A few attendees bowed their heads; most stared off into the distance. After the rites, there was mumbling among the crowd. The four men lowered the casket into the hole and shoveled dirt on top. A loud squeak made me turn. A fifth man was pushing a wheelbarrow sloshing with concrete. He dumped it on top of the dirt.

“That’s to stop grave robbers,” Franklin said into my ear.

“What’s there to rob? He didn’t bring the family silver.”

“It’s what they do here.”

I thought about that. The concrete signaled finality. Too neat an end.

“Who’s paying for all this?” I said.

Franklin seemed surprised. “Aren’t you? I mean, you were his friend.”

“I arrived less than twenty-four hours ago. How could I have organized a funeral in that time?”

She shrugged and handed me her card. “In case you want to come clean.”

The priest, having completed his duties, repaired to the chapel. The altar boys followed him, the cross now resting on the shoulder of one and the censer dangling from the hand of the other, the incense all burned up.

I needed information, so I left Franklin and followed the priest into the chapel. The boys had deposited their paraphernalia and were about to leave. I nodded to them and gave each five hundred Francs. Their eyes lit up, and they dashed outside. 

The priest watched them leave and said, “That wasn’t necessary. They already got paid.” 

“It’s a custom where I come from,” I said. “And they were glad.”

“Are you Mr. Melbourne’s friend from London?”

“I am. I only just arrived and can barely make sense of it all. Who paid for the funeral? Any of the people outside?”

He shook his head. “It was an anonymous donation. I suspect none of the folks outside would spend a penny on Melbourne.” He gave me a curious look. “All this must’ve been a shock for you. Take a stroll along Siesta beach. The fresh air will do you good.”

#

Back at the Sheraton, I picked up a tourist map and told Siyaad I wanted to go for a walk. He got off his chair. 

“How about I go alone,” I said. “I promise I won’t skip town.”

He nodded, but followed me anyway. I headed past the French Consulate toward Siesta beach. Siyaad kept a respectful distance. 

I didn’t believe for a moment that the priest’s suggestion came from his pastoral concerns for my wellbeing. Someone had asked him to point me toward this beach. But who? Everyone I’d met so far was after Melbourne. The pirates and the spooks were on the same side, albeit for different reasons.

The sky was overcast and the salty breeze from the ocean was pleasant. The beach seemed forlorn. Maybe it was off-season. A few kids in the water, a handful of folks strolling along the promenade, and three men sitting on benches, reading newspapers. 

The anonymous donation for the funeral occupied my mind. Who was the unknown benefactor? Although Melbourne had spent some time in Djibouti, it didn’t seem long enough to forge that kind of a friendship.

I reached the second man hidden behind a newspaper. Instead of French headlines, I saw the International Herald Tribune. The headlines were a day old. As I continued, I heard a whisper. 

“Notre Dame du Bon Pasteur.”

Not sure I had heard right, I stopped.

“Keep moving and lose the tail.”

The man got up, folding the paper. I only saw his back. A rotund guy, brown slacks, beige shirt, and a straw hat. Not anyone I knew. He crossed the Route De La Siesta and disappeared into an alley. I continued along the beach while checking my tourist map.

Notre Dame du Bon Pasteur turned out to be a Catholic cathedral only a few blocks away. I strolled along the promenade a while longer. The next alley looked like a good escape and I made a dash for it. 

A walled-in courtyard with an open gate looked promising but it had no other exit. I followed a narrow path outside one of the walls and turned left at a T-junction a hundred yards on. The path split into a warren of lanes full of small houses and shacks. An open garage offered a decent hiding place. I squeezed past the pickup inside and crouched by the front bumper.

Moments later, I heard steps and hard breathing. The steps slowed, the breathing didn’t. I counted on Siyaad not searching here. Any reasonable European would’ve continued on to the Boulevard de la République to disappear in the traffic. That’s where Siyaad headed.

I squeezed back outside, backtracked to the promenade, and hurried north to the cathedral. 

#

Notre Dame du Bon Pasteur was a boxy cathedral with a short transept and an ornate semi-circular entrance at the nave end. I entered through a side door. The interior was dark and cool. The altar stood at the center of the transept, rows of pews occupied the nave. Three carved confessionals sat along one side, a string of votive candle stands glowed along the other.

A smattering of faithful knelt in the pews. None of them looked like the portly man with the newspaper. I walked past the confessionals toward the far exit. At the last one, I heard another whisper, telling me to confess my sins.

I knelt on the priedieu and stared through the wooden grate. Even though the lighting was dim, I could make out the person sitting inside.

It was Melbourne.

“Hullo, old chum,” he said. “It’s good to see you. Sorry for all the trouble.”

“What the hell, Melbourne?” I said, louder than warranted. “Is that your idea of a joke? You tell me to come. You don’t show. Next thing I’m at your funeral?”

“Keep it down, please. I’m really sorry, but things were getting out of hand. The Somalis want their money back, and the spooks think I’m in league with the pirates. I had to disappear.”

“Good god, Melbourne. Have you any sense at all?”

He said nothing.

“Where is my money?”

“Safe and sound. I’ll pay you back with profits.”

“And the Somalis’ money?”

“The same.”

“What about the Baltic Dry Index?”

“You were right, I would’ve lost my shirt on the forward freight trades.”

“But you took the Somali’s money anyway?”

“Hey, they had stolen it first. Besides, I got them to stop hijacking more ships. The spooks should be grateful rather than hounding me.”

“And the warships in the gulf had nothing to do with that? Give me a break.”

“That’s neither here nor there. I need your help to get out of Djibouti posthaste.”

“You need help? What about me? Everybody here thinks I’m in on your scam. The Somalis have me under house arrest.”

“Their alliance is as creaky as an old chair. If you pay off Dawar, he’ll let you go.”

“With what? Remember, you took my money too.”

“Let me make some arrangements. Where are the pirates holding you?”

“The Sheraton.”

“Go there and wait for my call.”

#

Dawal was waiting for me at the Sheraton. He wasn’t smiling. 

“Don’t fuck with me. I know you were in on Melbourne’s scam. Until we get our money back, you’ll stay here. No more strolls along the beach.”

“Let’s get one thing straight. I wasn’t in on anything Melbourne did. He owes me money too. I want to help, but confining me to this room will make that difficult. How much of a down payment would you require to let me go? I might be able to free up a not insubstantial sum.”

“I can’t be bribed,” he said, but the hint of a smile on his face belied the fervor of his words.

“Who’s talking about a bribe? It’s a down payment. An expression of goodwill on my part in exchange for being able to go and find out where the rest of the money is.”

The smile grew wider. 

“I suppose two hundred thousand dollars could assuage my doubts. Mind you, he owes the consortium around a million, so it is indeed only a down payment.”

I returned the smile. “Of course. I’m committed to recovering all of the funds Melbourne took. Give me a day or two, and everything should be squared away.”

The smile on Dawar’s face faded a little. As he left the room, he turned and said, “Siyaad will remain here. If you need to leave, he will accompany you. No more escapes.”

I nodded and locked the door. Over the room phone, I ordered lunch and a beer. Since it was on Dawar’s tab, I went for a full meal. Who knew when I would eat again?

The dessert was half gone when the phone rang. It was Melbourne.

“How did it go with Dawar?” he said.

“He is amenable to a down payment of five hundred thousand.”

“What? The guy is nuts. That’s half of what I took from them.”

“Well, in light of the circumstances walking away with half might be your best option. By the way, that half also includes my investment.”

“If I’m only getting half, so should you. Shared pain.”

“You forget that you didn’t put up any money to start with. So whatever you clear is pure profit. But more importantly, how are you getting the funds to me?”

“Easy, it’s in bearer bonds, stashed in a secure location.”

“And how will I get it?”

“I’ll messenger you the key. We’ll leave town first thing tomorrow.”

#

An hour later, I heard the expected knock. I opened the door. A young Arab carrying a helmet and a messenger bag stood there, an envelope in his hands. Siyaad regarded him with suspicion. I accepted the delivery and closed the door.

The envelope contained two keys and a piece of paper with an address. I checked the address on my map. A place on an unfashionable side street of Avenue Cheik Houmet. After stuffing some clean clothes into my briefcase, I left the room. Siyaad raised his eyebrows.

“A small errand,” I said. “No need to come along.”

He followed me anyway. I climbed into the first taxi downstairs, and Siyaad scrambled in after me. 

The address was an old hotel, three stories, the windows fronted by rusty balconies connected by fire stairs, a dim reception area with a threadbare rug, a sleepy concierge, and a single elevator next to the staircase. I ignored the elevator and took the stairs, two steps at a time. Siyaad hustled after me. On the third floor, I found the proper door, unlocked it, slipped inside and locked Siyaad out. 

“Sorry,” I said.” This is private business. I won’t be long.”

It was a sparse room. The search took only a moment. A wall safe was hidden inside the closet. I inserted the other key, unlocked the safe door, and found bearer bonds amounting to five hundred thousand dollars.

Once securely hidden between the underwear in my briefcase, I turned on the radio, opened the door to the balcony and stepped outside. It creaked precariously, but the descent to the street was quick. The security gate at the bottom could only be opened from the inside, which suited me just fine. I ran to the main street and hailed a cab. 

An hour later, I rested comfortably in an equally forgettable hotel near the airport. My first call was to the airline to confirm my return flight to London. My second one was to alert Janice Franklin that Melbourne was not dead and would be at the airport the next morning at ten.

#

I got to the airport early and checked in for the flight to Istanbul with connection to London. Once through passport control, I was safe. I settled in the bar. It was a little early for a Scotch, neat, water on the side, but I needed to take the edge off. It had been a busy twenty-four hours. A rotund man wearing brown slacks, a beige shirt and a straw hat sat at a corner table. 

I walked over.

“Do you really think a few towels wrapped around your midriff will fool anyone?” I said.

“It worked so far. Did Dawal give you any trouble?”

“Nah. You were right. He was eager to get his hands on the money.”

I checked my watch. Almost ten. Dawal and his men wouldn’t make it through passport control, but Agent Franklin would. 

“Can’t wait to get out of here,” he said. “Some day we’ll look back at this and laugh.”

“I doubt that very much.”

A quartet of gendarmes had entered the departure hall, followed by Janice Franklin. They crowded around us. The sergeant told Melbourne that he was under arrest for financial crimes. His colleagues pulled him up and took off his sunglasses. 

“Did you tip them off?” Melbourne said.

“They would’ve found out anyway. Be nice to Agent Franklin and maybe she’ll cut you a deal.”

I reached for his bag. Franklin had the same idea. We both got a hold of the handle. 

She gave me a cold look. “Don’t mess with a treasury agent.” 

Mindful of the police watching, I let go.

Franklin took Melbourne’s bag and opened it. The contents looked just like the papers in Melbourne’s hotel safe.

Melbourne smiled sadly. “I’d have been better off trusting Dawal.”

The gendarmes took him away, but Franklin stayed.

“I’ll spare you the cavity search,” she said. “But I’m going to confiscate your bag too. It contains material evidence.” 

“On the basis of what? I have nothing of value in there.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

“How about you show me an ID and a warrant?”

“You should be glad they didn’t arrest you too.” She held her phone in her hand. “I can easily change that. The prisons here aren’t a lot of fun.”

She took the bag and left. 

I boarded and ended up sitting next to the British spook I’d seen at the funeral.

“I could’ve used your help,” I said. “Since when do you let American agents run roughshod over British subjects?”

“What American agents?”

“Janice Franklin. She confiscated my briefcase just now.”

“Is that what she was doing?” He laughed. “Crazy woman. When she first showed up here a couple of months ago, she was going on and on, Federal Agent this and Treasury that. Very convincing. But I checked with London. She isn’t any kind of agent.”

“She isn’t? What the hell? I liked that briefcase.”

I went to the restroom. Behind the locked door, I pulled up my shirt. The bearer bonds were sticking to my damp skin, and I couldn’t afford to have them disintegrate. I folded them carefully and stuck them in my jacket pocket. 

Who’d ever heard of a treasury agent in the field wearing a taupe blouse with a yellow silk scarf?

Michael Niemann writes crime fiction. His Valentin Vermeulen Thrillers are published by Coffeetown Press. The third in the series, Illegal Holdings, won the Silver Falchion for best thriller at Killer Nashville 2019. His stories have appeared in the MWA Anthology Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, in MystericalE, and as Kindle Singles. He lives in Southern Oregon.



Monday, July 18, 2022

Marshall's Law, fiction by Richard Cass

Marshall Ouellette stomped on the brakes of his Lexus SUV before he ran up the tail of a ragged Chevy pickup, piled with steel mesh lobster traps and parked in his space. The truck’s wheel wells were cancered out with rust and the original blue had faded to turquoise.

“Fucking A.”

Holmes was only supposed to use the space at night, to load his bait off the pier, when no one from the law firm was using the lot.

He inched the Lexus up to the truck’s rear bumper. The first time it happened, Marshall thought he might have to fight the old man, but his hands looked like Marshall’s father’s, sea-swollen and hard. Marshall knew how hands like that could dish it out.

He couldn’t call the cops again, though his boss Oscar DeMent had insisted on it the first time. The firm had bought exclusive rights to the parking area, which blocked a prime section of the pier from access by the lobster boats. Marshall thought his boss would have had some sympathy for the fishermen: he lived on Peaks Island and commuted to work by boat.

Instead of pressing charges, Marshall had worked out a deal.

He got out and slammed the door in anger, in case DeMent was watching.

“Hey, fuckwit.”

Another fisherman in another salt-chewed pickup wanted to pass.

“Your pretty little car is blocking my way.”

True enough, though this guy wasn’t supposed to be back here either.

He backed and filled the Lexus to let the man by. The truck slipped into an open slot designated for DeMent.

He thought about letting the whole thing go. He had an eight-thirty meeting with his boss and he couldn’t be late. Unless you were a partner, you were as disposable as toilet paper.

The fisherman he’d let through walked toward Marshall, a coil of blue polypropylene rope over his shoulder, a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth. His work shirt bore the name Cap’n Frank and what must have been the name of his boat: Lobstah Mobstah.

“Surprised Holmesy’s still here,” Frank said. “Usually only hangs around long enough to load his bait barrels.”

“He’s been warned.”

“Don’t I know. Cost him a hundred and seventy-eight dollars.”

What? Marshall was supposed to feel guilty?

Frank strolled up to the driver’s side window of the Chevy. His mouth dropped open, the cigarette falling to the pavement.

“Good reason why he didn’t move. Come look at this.”

“What? He fall asleep?”

“You might say that.”

Holmes’s face was barely recognizable, blood and fluids leaking down over his oilskins. At least, he thought, the pants were waterproof.

* * *

Detective Danny Coughlin sat down across the conference room table. DeMent hadn’t liked the idea of the police conducting interviews on the premises, but Marshall convinced him it was preferable to losing half a morning’s billable hours by going to the police station.

“You knew Mr. Holmes.”

He doubted Coughlin would have called the man Mister if he were talking to him directly. Or to any of the other fishermen. The remaining few who fished out of the wharf downtown had a reputation as an obstreperous bunch.

“Didn’t know him. He parked in my space a couple of times.”

“Your parking space? He was carrying your card in his wallet.”

“Business card?”

“Your key card. For the parking lot.”

“That must be what happened to it. I lost it a couple months ago.”

His first lie.

“You two had a fist fight. Over your parking space.”

“That first time. Yes.”

“And you have a reputation for having a temper.”

He wondered where Coughlin had heard that. He couldn’t help thinking about his father, whose body was sunk in Jericho Bay, off Stonington.

“I had my moments. When I was younger. And drinking.”

“Friend of Bill’s?”

“If you know anything about that, you know I can’t say.”

The detective tacked away.

“I get it, you know. The city’s changing. More tourists, more service business. Not a lot of room left for the old-timers. Did you argue with Mr. Holmes today?”

Coughlin slipped the question in like a blade.

“I did not. And the one time we tussled, he came at me first.”

Coughlin rolled a coin over his knuckles, silver and gold like a Canadian loonie.

“Not the way the report tells it.”

“I’d asked him to move.”

“Politely?”

Maybe not as politely as he could have, since Holmes’s response had been to sling a handful of gurry at him. But Marshall had put up with enough of that crap from fishermen growing up not to let Holmes get away with it. He had admired the man’s feistiness.

“He has a temper, too,” Marshall said.

“Had. Look. I know how it can go. Somebody says the wrong thing, you lose your rag.”

“I didn’t lose my rag. I never saw him again.” Second lie.

“Where do you suppose he came by your key card?”

“Found it on the ground, most likely. Can I get back to work?”

Walking the cop to the front desk, they passed Oscar DeMent, standing in his office doorway pushing up on the jamb like he was bench-pressing the building.

“Ouellette,” he barked. “This is a criminal defense firm. I don’t ever want to see a cop in here again.”

“Asshole,” Marshall muttered, a dozen feet down the hall.

“I know,” Coughlin said. “Bosses, right?”

At the street door, he stuck out his hand.

“Don’t sweat it. It’s probably some kind of clash between fishermen. These guys get hot.”

Marshall remembered Holmes’s battered face.

“Lot of anger there.”

Coughlin paused, the door open.

“When you lost your card. Was that before or after your tussle with Holmes?”

“Before. Long time before.” Third lie. The charm?

Holmes was only supposed to use the card late at night, when the firm was closed. In return for the access, he’d drop off a bag of short lobsters every so often, leaving them in the back of Marshall’s Lexus. It made Marshall feel more connected to his past, where he came from Down East, to help Holmes out.

DeMent was waiting as Marshall walked back to his office.

“I assume you didn’t do it,” he said.

Marshall stopped short.

“Do what?”

“Kill the man.” DeMent’s eyes narrowed under his untrimmed eyebrows. “I know about your little arrangement with him. Not a good look for an aspiring lawyer.”

Marshall thought about pointing out that he was already a lawyer, having passed the bar exam. It wasn’t worth it. He’d forgotten how small an island could be, how little stayed secret.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” As he continued to his office, he wondered why he’d ever thought this job was a good idea.

He left for the day around eight, long after DeMent. It cost him twenty bucks to get his car out of the garage a half dozen blocks from the office. He knew the firm wouldn’t reimburse him.

As he stopped at the bottom of the ramp, a man in Xtratuf rubber boots, greasy jeans, and a flannel shirt with the arms cut off stood in his way. As the wooden arm rose, the man pitched his cigarette into the gutter, grabbed the Lexus’s door handle, and pulled himself in.

“Don’t mind dropping me down by the wharf, do you?”

Marshall didn’t think he had a choice, or that the man only wanted a ride.

“Paulie,” he said. “Paulie Macklin. I won’t shake your hand, since you’re doing the driving.”

Marshall turned right onto Commercial Street and crawled through the evening traffic, the tourists jaywalking.

“Ouellette,” Marshall said.

“I know. And I know what Holmesy was doing for you.”

“And what was that?”

“There are much worse things going on on the island than taking out shorts.”

“I liked him,” Marshall said. “Crusty, but he treated me all right. Eventually.”

Macklin laughed, took out another smoke, but didn’t light it.

“He never gave anybody anything he could sell for money. But he was all right.”

“So we agree. What do you want?”

“You’re a lawyer. Some of us aren’t too happy with what happened.”

“To Holmes?”

“And other stuff going on. He was attracting attention and a couple guys didn’t like it.”

“On Peaks.”

“No details,” Macklin said. “But we’re going to do something about it. And you’re a lawyer.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Cops won’t listen to any of us. They think we’re the problem, even though we were here first. One guy lost a twenty trap haul to a tourist sailboat last week. That’s a couple of grand worth of gear.”

Marshall shook his head. Fighting in the lobster wars wouldn’t do him any good, with the firm or with DeMent.

“I can’t help you.”

“You know, I’ve got an observer on my boat these days. DMR guy, a biologist. He’s real focused on people who abuse the fishery.”

Marshall knew the penalties for holding shorts, from fishing with his father. Five hundred dollars plus a hundred per bug. He didn’t want to have to do the math.

“Give me a name, I’ll pass it on. That’s all.”

Macklin lipped the cigarette and brought out a plastic lighter.

“That’ll do. Think we can get moving here? I promised my daughter I’d be home to help her with arithmetic.”

* * *

A week went by and nothing much happened, except DeMent got more and more abusive, as if he wanted Marshall to quit. More than once, Marshall had to remove himself physically from  his boss’s office before he lost his temper.

Monday, when he left the office for lunch, he found a yellow Post-It note stuck on his windshield, tucked under the wiper, the name Frank Teixeira in black block letters.

Coughlin was less grateful than Marshall thought he would be.

“This came from where? The neighborhood watch?”

“I don’t know the name of the guy who passed it on. But he thought I had a better chance of getting heard than he would.”

Coughlin looked like he’d bitten a worm.

“So. A fisherman.”

“All he said was Holmes was getting in someone’s way. Is there something bad going on out there?”

“Fucking islands,” Coughlin said. “Peaks might as well be its own republic. We have had an eye on Teixeira.”

He glanced at Marshall.

“Now get out of here and stop complicating my life.”

* * *

Back in the office, DeMent waited, a frown on his face.

“You were at the cops.”

“Not part of my job. So. None of your business.”

DeMent breasted up to him, his cologne an insult.

“It’s part of your job if I say it is. What did you tell them?”

“They asked me questions about the other day. When that guy was killed.”

“What kind of questions?”

“Ones I already answered. Like they were trying to pin my story down. Maybe they still think I killed him.”

“Anything about the island?”

“Peaks? No.”

“You should be OK. Assuming you didn’t actually kill him.”

Marshall felt a sharp jab of anger.

“Nope. Always trying to stay on the right side of the law.”

DeMent frowned and turned back into his office. Marshall watched, certain something else was going on.

* * *

The next day, weather gorgeous, Marshall went out to eat lunch in his car. He’d never thought about the fact that being a lawyer meant you spent all your time indoors. And that no one thought that was strange.

He was sitting in the shade of his tailgate when the Portland Fire Boat docked at the end of the pier and Detective Coughlin led a man in handcuffs off. As they passed, Marshall saw it was the fisherman who’d asked him to move, the day they found Holmes.

He nodded as Coughlin passed, but had to wait till the next morning to read in the Press Herald that Frank Teixeira had been arrested for the murder of Holmes.

* * *

The day he resigned, he came in to work early, hoping to avoid a confrontation with DeMent. At five-thirty, all the light on the dock was artificial. As he pulled into his parking space, his headlights flashed over someone unloading a lobster boat at the far end of the pier.

Made no sense. At this hour, you’d be loading up: traps, bait, whatever. He shut down the Lexus and walked in the shadows of the research center until he was directly above the boat. Oscar DeMent was unloading what looked like bags of potting soil onto the dock.

As Marshall watched, one of the bags split on impact, spilling dark soil and a plastic-wrapped brick. He stepped back, deeper into the shadows, and headed for his car.

Later that morning, he stepped into DeMent’s office to drop off his resignation.

“Too much work for you?” DeMent sneered.

“Not enough money. I’m looking for something more lucrative. Short-term.”

“Really.”

“I saw you unloading a boat this morning. Any work there?”

DeMent rose from his chair.

“You saw nothing. Now get out of here.”

* * *

Marshall called Coughlin, who was unimpressed.

“Holmes was attracting too much attention to the island,” he said. “Teixeira was moving heroin in from offshore.”

“All by himself.”

“So he says. Listen. Your name came up as one of Holmes’s customers. That true?”

Marshall didn’t answer.

“Marine Resources might want to talk to you. Be prepared.”

“What about DeMent?”

“I’ll press Teixeira.” Coughlin hedged. “But without any evidence . .”

“OK. Thanks for the heads up.”

He dropped into Three-Dollar Dewey’s for a pint. It was a long time since he’d done any day drinking. He was considering getting loaded when DeMent sidled up to his stool.

“What do you want?”

“I couldn’t talk about it in the office. Friend of mine is short a stern man. You said you needed to earn some cash?”

“Been there, done that.” He wasn’t going back to lobstering, even for a minute. He hoped. And why was DeMent trying to do him a favor?

“Special season. Five grand, one night’s work. You can keep your mouth shut.”

Smelled like a setup.

“You the friend? Or someone else?”

“None of your concern. Be at the Marina. On Peaks. Nine PM.”

* * *

Marshall called Paulie Macklin around four.

“Ouellette.” Macklin coughed into the phone.

“Where are you?”

“Fish Pier. Why?”

“I could use a ride.”

“To the island? What for?”

“Payback.”

“You found out Teixeira wasn’t a solo act.”

“I told you. I liked Holmes.”

“Pick you up in an hour.”

* * *

It was dark as midnight on the water. DeMent seemed jumpy, though they were on his boat. Marshall had glimpsed the handle of the revolver inside DeMent’s oilskins.

“This works out, there’s plenty more.” He snickered. “I could always tell your heart wasn’t in the law.”

He stepped up to the hauler.

“Ease me up to that buoy there.”

He’d let Marshall run the boat once he saw he could handle it, probably to keep his hands occupied.

Marshall dropped the engine into neutral. DeMent caught the rope with a boat hook and loped it over the snatch block, out at the end of the davit. The motor zipped the line up faster than a man could do it hand over hand. The trap broke water and Marshall saw the plastic brick inside.

“Holmes died over that?”

“Frank’s taking the fall,” DeMent said. “But I’ll take care of him.”

He set the trap on the gunwale, took out the dope, and packed an actual brick inside. His back to Marshall, he slipped his hand inside the oilskin pants.

Marshall took a long step forward, unlooped the line from the pulley and looped it around DeMent’s neck. He pushed the trap over the side and the weight of it straightened out the line. DeMent flailed. He had time for one aggrieved squawk before he disappeared into the night-dark sea.

An engine started up maybe twenty yards off, idled closer.

“You’re right,” Macklin said. “It only looks good if he was here by himself.”

Marshall swung onto Macklin’s boat.

“Fuckin’ A,” he said, and they motored away.


Richard Cass is the author of six crime novels in the Elder Darrow jazz mystery series. Books in the series have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction and the Nancy Pearl Librarians’ Prize for Genre Fiction. Kirkus Reviews called Book 4: Last Call at the Esposito “an immersive and satisfying addition to Boston crime fiction.” He lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Visit: @DickCass on Twitter.

Monday, July 11, 2022

A Burning Man, fiction by Susan Kuchinskas

Dust hung in the stifling night air, blurring the outlines of illuminated sculptures hulking on the horizon. Pete lurked out on the perimeter, taking take a break from the relentless thumping of dance music and the sensory overload that was Burning Man. 

It was his first time, and he was finding it … difficult. When Serena and Matt, his coworkers at Think.ly, had invited him to join Brainville, their camp, he thought, why not? By now, he knew plenty of reasons why not: the grit that insinuated itself everywhere, the unending noise, the filthy Port-a-Potties. But the biggest one: He wasn't cool enough. 

A couple rode by on bikes festooned with fake fur and fiberoptic wire. Her long purple dreadlocks were twined with beads; her curvy body was almost entirely exposed by an iridescent vinyl bikini. Her companion sported a towering top hat glittering with LEDs. His hipster beard was coated with something that made it glow in the dark.

The cyclists paused to hand him something.

"Hey, thanks. Oh, and here." Pete gave them each a good blast from his mister.

"Oooh," she purred, making Pete feel good about his offering. But the good feeling dissipated as the fabulous pair rode off, leaving him lonely and envious. He stared bemused at the packet of vitamins they'd gifted him with.

Further on, a moving shape loomed out of the gritty night, outlined by winking pink and orange lights. Idly curious, he walked toward it. watching it resolve into a person with a complex art bike. The figure crouching beside it was a woman.

She was fiddling with the bike chain, and let out a frustrated "fuck!"

He was a bicyclist himself. "Trouble with the chain?" he said neutrally. He was schooled by bitter experience not to assume a woman needed help.

She looked up at him. 

She was the kind of woman he'd never get in real life. Artsy, green-haired, tattooed. He and his friends called them the alterna-babes. She would be sexy and snarky, and absolutely unapproachable. And yet, here he was.

"Yeah."

"Want me to have a look?" 

She shrugged and rose, displaying a lanky and delicious body clad in what looked like chain mail made out of tin can lids. "You don't by any chance have an adjustable wrench, do you?"

He sheepishly pulled out his Swiss Army knife. "I've got this."

She laughed, and his balls shriveled. But the laugh wasn't derisive, it was something simpler and less intimidating. "Always prepared, huh? Don't tell me you were an Eagle Scout." Before he could answer—of course, he'd been—she added, "Have at it."

The problem was simple but not easy to fix: The chain had come loose because a couple of the cogs on the sprocket were bent. He opened the knife and exposed the pliers. They were tiny but mighty, and did the job with a bit of muscle. He levered the chain back on.

He was pleased enough with himself to say boldly, "And you laughed at the Swiss Army knife."

She laughed with him. "Never again."

In the gloom, her eyes looked bright. He sucked more courage up from the depths. "So, what are you doing?"

"Just cruising, you know?" At that point, he had no nerve left. But she saved him. "Want to ride along?"

Seconds later, he was ensconced behind her on the bike's long banana seat. After squelching a moment of embarrassment at taking the inferior position, he began to enjoy the hot, salty effusion radiating off her. He chastely gripped the side of the seat with his hands until she said, "Hold onto me. I don't want you eating any more dirt than you have to."

He slid his hands, tentatively and then firmly, onto her slim waist, resting them just above the swell of her beautiful hips.

And just like that, he was one of the cool people. Unbelievable.


"Hey, what's your name?" he said into her ear.

"Jasmine." He caught of whiff of her breath as she called back to him, melon and musk.

She rode them in toward the center, lighted pavilions emerging and dissolving like dreams. A horned metal fish drifted by, carrying a dozen or so people on its back, all of them moving to music that throbbed out of its bowels, music so loud it shook Pete's teeth. The dancing crowd waved; Jasmine waved back and, a second later, so did Pete.

It was a different perspective, whizzing along, kicking up a wake of silky dust. Pete loved it. He grinned, letting the sand infiltrate his mouth, no longer resisting the powdery coating accumulating all over him. 

One pulsating beat gradually dominated all the threads of dance music pounding through the dark. Jasmine was heading them right toward it, long legs pumping now. A disco in the dirt, adorned with red and purple neon. Inside, half-naked bodies writhing in rhythm. 

Jasmine stopped the bike. "Wanna dance?"

Oh, how he wanted to dance with this gorgeous woman who'd magically taken him in hand. He followed her into the middle of the scrum and let her lead, trying to match her style, which involved an undulating pelvis and gracefully waving arms. He settled for gentle hip thrusts—not wanting to seem aggressively sexual—and shoulder shrugs. He didn't think he could pull off full-on arm waving. Body smells mingled with the scent of herbs, marijuana, spilled beer and the pervasive tang of burning fuel. 

Jasmine half-fell toward him, wrapping her arms around his neck to steady herself. She didn't let go. He felt her groin bumping against his instant erection and tried to pull away. But she held tighter, rubbing her breasts against his chest, gently circling her stomach against his cock.

Pete had a moment of panic. This couldn't be real. It was too good to be true. There was no way a beautiful woman like Jasmine would be interested in him. 

But this wasn't real life, he reminded himself gleefully. This was Burning Man—and anything was possible. Even that an alterna-babe like her might be momentarily dazzled by the playa-wear sheen of his carefully curated clothing.

He relaxed into her, still trying to keep it respectful while his entire body burned for her. This was a dream come true.

An hour later, Pete was panting—overcome by desire and the simple exertion of dancing in the hellish heat. 

Jasmine looked up into his face. "Tired, baby?"

His heart jumped. She'd called him baby. "Yeah, I'm beat."

"You are so adorable," she said, taking his face in her hands. She was peering up at him with affection, but she made him feel like a puppy—not a man.

He mustered his pride and kissed her. Her lips were dry and chapped; so were his. But it was a firm, good kiss, and after a moment, she opened her mouth to him. He fell in. 

"Whoah, cowboy," she said after a minute, but she was smiling. "You're a good kisser. Let's get you home."

He felt a second of terror. Where were they? He had no idea how to get back to his camp. But he remembered the landmark. "We're next to 3SP. Unless … you want to go back to your camp?"

She grinned. "You are adorable. But no. Hop on."

He mounted behind her, and she quickly navigated them back to his pathetic camp—three adjoining pop-up shade tents and a small RV with a bathroom they all got to use. She put her feet down, didn't get off the bike. Oh, well. He slid off, stood for a moment, uncertain. 

"Come here, you." She put her hand on the back of his head and pulled him over for a kiss. A quick one this time. 

He twitched on his air mattress for hours.


The sun broke over the hazy horizon, and Pete's mind broke with it. He struggled out of his tent, ass first, and stood blinking in the glare. Jasmine was out there somewhere. In the seven square miles of Burning Man, some 70,000 people milled around. How would he ever find her again? 

He staggered over to the kitchen area, bleary from the restless night. Matt was sprawled in the hammock outside the RV, eyes heavy-lidded but awake.

"Dude," Matt croaked. 

"Fun night?"

"Epic. You?"

"Oh, yeah."

Matt's eyes opened. "Dude! I knew you had some party in you."

"Whatever." Pete fished in a cooler and brought out an iced Starbucks latte. He chugged it and reached for another. "Guess I'll head over to Playa Central." He was thinking about the message boards there. Would that be too pathetic? Or would it be romantic? Either way, it seemed like the only possibility for finding Jasmine again. Why oh why hadn't he asked her where her camp was?

"Take a bike," Matt said, drifting off again. "The green one."

The camp's bikes weren't particularly cool, but they were functional—beater fixies, spray-painted in fluorescent colors. Pete's playa-wear for the day was purple-and-white-flowered board shorts and a vintage Billy Idol t-shirt. 

Now, he was seeing everything though her eyes. What had she seen in him? Probably nothing much. Just an aimless Burning Man flirtation. But he couldn't let it go. She'd said he was adorable. That had to mean something.


Pete returned to Brainville two hours later, as the heat turned from broiling to murderous.

It was quiet, although he heard snoring from one of the tents. He checked the chalkboard they used for messages. Nothing beyond the usual gripes about trash and food. He grabbed a beer and fell onto the battered couch they'd hauled in. Was he going to spend the rest of his time at Burning Man sitting in camp, hoping Jasmine would return? That would be ridiculous. He sank into the couch, fanning himself.

An hour later, he was dozing. Serena skidded her bike to a stop, dropped it and walked over. "Hey, Pete. Some girl was here looking for you."

Joy steamed his veins. "Jasmine?"

Serena wrinkled her sunburned forehead. "I think so. Yeah."

"What did she say?"

"Uh oh. Someone's crushing."

"Cut it out. What'd she say?"

"Hmmm … " She made an exaggerated thinking-face.

"Serena. Please!"

"Aw, I'm just fucking with ya. She said to meet her at the Black Rock Roller Disco tonight."

"What time?"

"Jeez, Pete. Burning Man time." 


It was unbelievable. Jasmine wanted to see him again. He spent the early evening riding around, jacked up, sampling the festival's gifting economy. He stood in line for forty-five minutes to get a grilled cheese sandwich, lucked into a mint julip, and gave away a couple of the beeswax lip balms he'd brought along. He saved the nicest flavor, pomegranate mint, for Jasmine. Maybe he could tell her he wanted to taste it on her lips. Oh, god. Was he a fool, or what?

What is the cool time to arrive at a roller disco in the desert? He didn't want to miss her. The first time Pete rode by, it was dusk. A few people skated around, hanging onto each other and laughing. He made another tour of the camps, forcing himself to stop, look and talk to people.

He watched a woman flogging a man tied to a wooden cross. He saw a circle of men, each stroking the genitals of a woman lying next to him. He took a turn riding a Ferris wheel made from oil drums. 

When he arrived back at the roller disco, it was full dark. Blinking lights and corny Seventies music—it looked like fun. And there she was, pulling off a passable dance step, right in the middle of the crowd.

Jasmine was wearing tie-dyed short shorts and a silver lame halter top. She'd put her green hair into tiny braids, each tipped with a piece of glowing plastic. She was amazing.

He grabbed a pair of skates and clunked his way out to her. When she saw him, her face lit up. He couldn't believe it. He could feel his own face grinning wildly.

"It's my cowboy. Hey, handsome."

"Jasmine," was all he could say.

"Come on, baby." She took his hand and began to roll, adding a funky wiggle to her skating.

Pete skated as a kid on the frozen lakes of Minnesota, and once he got used to the four wheels, he wasn't bad—although he didn't dare attempt any dance moves. He was maybe the happiest he'd ever been in his life.

They stopped for tequila shots at the bar, attended by a beautiful being, six feet tall and covered with glitter. Jasmine slung her arm around Pete's neck, downed her tequila and said, "Hey. Want to have an adventure?"


As the kaleidoscope of flame and light whipped past them on the bike, it filled Pete's head with fantasies. The two of them together in San Francisco, living in a warehouse co-op. He wouldn’t quite fit in, but her artist friends would be kind to him, because he was with Jasmine. He'd make his own art bike, and they'd cruise to the dive bars he'd never dared enter. He'd fund her elaborate art projects, and she'd love him all the more.

Jasmine slowed the bike in front of a nondescript enclave. Instead of the glitter and glamour that advertised most Burning Man camps, with their ragtag assortments of RVs, tents and shade structures, this one was closed in by a stretch of identical canvas tents, each big enough to sleep ten people, each turning a blank face to the public.

"What do you think?" Jasmine asked.

"I dunno. It's kind of … dull."

"Not inside, I bet. This is Camp Beau Soleil. It's a private camp. No proles allowed. Let's check it out."

They dropped the bikes and walked around to the side of the camp where a dim orange light shone. A tented tunnel, floored with Oriental rugs, led to a desk staffed by a dead ringer for Fidel Castro. Cool air and the scent of weed wafted out. 

Jasmine swaggered ahead. "Hey, dude."

The guy nodded but didn't crack a smile. Jasmine leaned toward him. "Can we check it out?"

"Sorry. Registered guests only."

"I'm a friend of Austin Broca."

"Are you on his list?"

Jasmine shrugged, giving it up. "Probably not."

"Sorry."

"No worries."

Jasmine dragged Pete back around the tents, clinging to him and giggling.

"What was that all about?"

"I just felt like seeing some real assholes."

"You know them?"

"Austin is one of those tech billionaires. Sold his company to Uber a few months ago."

Jealousy flashed him. He couldn’t help himself.

“How do you know Austin?”

“I kind of started the company with him.”

“What?”

“Yeah, then he stole it. Come on.”

They walked the perimeter of the camp, Jasmine shining a tiny flashlight along the unbroken expanse of canvas. "That is completely contrary to the spirit of Burning Man. It's supposed to be an open, equal society. But it's like everything else. The rich are more equal than us commoners." She played the flashlight up and down one of the tents. "And yet, anyone could get in there with a box cutter."

Pete dug in his feet. "You're not some kind of Burning Man terrorist, are you?"

"Oh, baby. You're so funny. Let's find someplace to dance."

They danced for hours, Pete absorbing the heat of her body like a sun-worshipping lizard, his reptile brain awash in love and lust chemicals. A pattern to their dancing emerged. Jasmine would get more and more sexual, inviting him with every movement. He'd draw closer and closer until there was a glorious moment when they were skin to skin. Then Jasmine would slither out of his grasp. Pete was beside himself with longing and pleasure. When he was completely rung out, she again delivered him to his camp.

This time, he was more together. "Where's your camp? How can I find you?"

She put her arms around his waist, looking into his eyes. Behind her, dawn was breaking. "I'll find you. I promise."


Pete thought of himself as a pragmatic, down-to-earth guy. So he was trying really hard not to get carried away. Jasmine was incredible—and way too hip for him. How could he believe she wanted him? But the way she looked at him … 

"Petey, why are you dressed like that?" It was Serena, decked out in a white-lace steampunk outfit. "Aren't you coming to the Temple Burn?"

Pete groaned. All he wanted to do was mope around camp, hoping Jasmine would turn up. But the Temple Burn was the second-biggest event, and everyone would be there. Blind hope fought with reality, and reality won. "Sure, I'm coming."

"But don't wear that. Wear that cape thing you bought."

The cape had seemed perfect at the bazaar where he'd bought it, but now it seemed ridiculous. "I'm just going to wear the black shirt."

"But Peter—"

"Serena. It will be fine."

Minutes later, they were in a bike procession toward the temple, a vast wooden construction of swooping spires, Pete's heart sinking. Without Jasmine, everything seemed garish and annoying.

Then, above the hubbub of music, laughing and shouts, he heard the ougha-ougha of a bike horn. It was Jasmine's elaborate bike, emerging from the haze like a fabulous beast. He was dazed with joy.

"I'm stealing your friend," she called out to his group, eliciting a knowing smirk from Serena. "Come on, boyfriend."

Boyfriend! She was more dazzling than ever in some kind of sparkly temple-dancer outfit, her face frosted with shimmering powder. Pete felt stupid for wearing his plain black shirt, but Jasmine looked him up and down and said, "You look perfect. Let's go."

She veered away from the main road leading to the temple. Pete didn't care; he'd follow her anywhere.

They ended up back at Camp Beau Soleil, but at one of the rear corners. Jasmine's eyes glittered brighter than her outfit as she pulled something out of the pouch at her waist. "Look. This time I've got a box cutter." She put her ear to the tent and listened, then sank the blade into the canvas and slashed. The blade was so sharp it barely made a noise.

"Let’s go."

Pete balked. "Jasmine. What are you doing?"

“I’m going to get what’s mine.”

“What do you mean?”

“Call it collecting a debt. Call it payback.” She stepped close to him, put one hand on his heart and the other at the back of his neck. Her kiss made him weak. "Don't be a pussy. I need you."

Those were the magic words that got him through the slit and into one of the forbidden tents.

The room was lit by a dim yellow bulb. Jasmine stood listening, and Pete looked around at the thick rugs, brocade pillows and wooden four-poster bed. Opulent. Even the ever-present dust was at a minimum. She peeked out through the tent's entrance flap.

"Almost everyone will be at the Temple Burn. Anyone still here will be out of it."

"But—" 

"Come on."

She took his hand and led him outside. The central yard was deserted except for a couple sprawled on a pile of pillows, halfheartedly making out.

Jasmine crept from tent to tent, peeking into each. Every time Pete protested, she shushed him. Once, a guy in a black t-shirt saying "SECURITY" came out of a tent. Jasmine threw herself onto Pete and sagged against him, head lolling. Her other hand grabbed his crotch as she gave the security guard a sloppy smile. He nodded curtly and walked on, evidently mistaking Pete's expression of wide-eyed terror for a drugged-out, glassy stare.

Even through his fear, Jasmine's touch stirred him. He followed her helplessly as she peered into the tents until, halfway around, she paused, pulled the flap wider and motioned Pete in with a jerk of her head.

The tent was furnished just like the one they'd broken in through, but there was a lot more personal stuff thrown around: expensive cameras, a bank of battery chargers, a plastic bin holding top-shelf liquor, and men's clothing strewn on the bed and rugs. Jasmine knelt by a large backpack on the floor and rummaged through it.

She pulled out a laptop, razor-thin and glistening. She opened it and began tapping keys, muttering to herself. "Shit."

Pete's ardor for Jasmine winked out. "I'm not—" 

Just then, the tent flap opened. He heard a scuffle, a gasp, and the tent was illuminated by a flashlight. A man, lean, attractive face under a thatch of bedroom hair, shining the light into Jasmine's eyes. Pete watched his face go from confusion to recognition to anger in an instant.

"Irene?"

Jasmine looked up at him from where she crouched like a panther over her kill. "Austin. Brilliant as ever."

Pete reeled as reality shifted. Austin looked Jasmine—Irene?—up and down. "You've changed," he said.

She stood up, proudly displaying her gorgeous body to Austin's gaze. "Getting dumped by you was good for me." Then she flashed the box cutter.

Austin sneered and moved toward the bed. "Come on, Irene, don't be dramatic."

Pete wanted to smack that superior expression off his face. But he just stood there.

"I see you have my laptop," Austin went on. "Were you planning to hack into my crypto wallet?"

"I'm taking what's mine." 

Austin gave her a sly smile. "All you had to do was ask." He smoothly fished into a pocket of his cargo pants and pulled out a small pistol, aiming it at the middle of Jasmine's chest. "Of course," he smirked, "I would have said no."

"You bastard." 

Jasmine lunged at Austin, brandishing the box cutter, knocking him back onto the bed. The gun went flying toward Pete. Pete flinched away from it. Jasmine, pressing the cutter against Austin’s neck, hissed, “Get the gun.”

He reluctantly picked it up, holding it loosely at half-mast. Jasmine jumped up, wrapped her hand around his and pulled his arm upward until the gun was pointed at Austin's chest. 

"If he moves, shoot him."

"I'm not going to—"

"Alright, then just hold it.” 

She picked up the laptop, hit a couple of keys and turned to Austin. "What's the password?"

"No way."

"I'm getting into it one way or another."

"Over my dead body."

"Fine." In a single fluid motion, Jasmine grabbed Pete's gun hand, slid her finger in and pulled the trigger. A black hole gaped in Austin's chest as he sprawled back, then it flowed red. She jumped to the bed, took the corpse's right index finger and pressed it against the laptop's fingerprint reader. The screen lit up.

Already, footsteps were running toward the tent. As Pete stood stupefied, Jasmine began to scream. 

"He shot him. He shot him. Someone! Help!"

The three burly men who rushed into the tent didn't hesitate. They piled onto Pete, taking him down. Jasmine's screams rang in his ears as the guards wrestled him into submission. As one of them socked him in the jaw, Pete had time for one final thought before he blacked out.

Unbelievable.


Susan Kuchinskas likes to smash genres. She's the author of the science fiction/detective novel Chimera Catalyst.