Monday, July 17, 2023

Rideshare, fiction by J.M. Taylor


Brett heard the fight next door even over the airplane-drone of the air conditioner. That woman on the second floor didn’t have a/c herself, so her windows were always open. Over the past few weeks, since the new boyfriend showed up, Brett and his wife had been unwilling witnesses to the whole gamut—the change from her usual 70s soft rock station to the boyfriend’s 80s hair bands, the sex, the fights, the make-up sex. Mornings, it was the clinking of bottles tipped into the recycle bin before she walked to the subway station. It got so as soon as Brett’s wife Emily saw the boyfriend’s car pull into the driveway, she’d immediately blast the window unit. She pulled the shades ostensibly to keep out the sun, though the windows faced north.

Tonight the pair started going at it almost from the time the boyfriend walked in the door. Brett watched him careen into the driveway so fast he thought the car would burst through the fence into the yard. But the thing had good breaks, and though the body rocked for several seconds after he killed the ignition, the boyfriend didn’t hit a thing.

Well, nothing outside. His huge arms seemed equal parts muscle and fat, and his belly strained against the sweat-stained T-shirt. With his shaved head, Brett considered him a walking stereotype. He stalked into the house, fury rolling off him in waves.

Brett punched 9-1-1 into his phone, ready to hit “send” if things got out of hand. She was the only tenant in the two-family house, so it was only the mice who could hear anything in the bottom unit. He wondered how the woman—who seemed to have a regular office job, generally kept to herself, and usually stayed in nights—had ended up with this loser. Brett had never spoken to her himself, though, and given the fleeting embarrassed looks he got if they ever passed each other, he didn’t think now was a good time to strike up a conversation.

It didn’t take long to discover the topic of tonight’s melee. Ten minutes after the car blew into the driveway, a police cruiser and tow truck rolled into view. The cruiser parked while the truck angled into the driveway. Brett noticed that nobody bothered to knock on the door. In fact, the cop stayed in the car, likely blasting his own a/c, until the boyfriend stormed out of the house.   

Here’s some excitement,” Brett called over his shoulder. Emily joined him at the window and handed him a glass of white. The cop blocked the boyfriend while the truck driver did his thing, apparently oblivious to the threats and insults hurled at his back. The woman watched forlornly from the front door.

He probably gets that a dozen times a day,” Emily said. As if the comment had reached the dispute outside, the woman suddenly looked up and glared at them, but Brett only took a sip of his wine. This was public, and everyone was entitled to the show.

It was all over in five minutes. The cop put up a warning finger, then reached in the car for a hard hat and handed it to the boyfriend. As if nothing were going on around him, the tow truck driver climbed back in the cab and drove off. The boyfriend’s front bumper clunked once on the curb, and was gone. The cop spoke a minute more, then he, too, left.

Now things are going to get bad,” Emily predicted.

Could go either way,” Brett countered. “It could be screaming, or screwing.”

Not with that look on her face.”

But they were both wrong. With a curt shout to the woman, the boyfriend tossed the hard hat on the grass and took to the sidewalk, in the direction of the subway.

Looks like that’s that,” Brett said. The show over, they refilled their wine glasses, watched some Netflix, and went to bed. They both had work the next day.

But that wasn’t that.

As Brett started to pull out of the driveway the next morning, he spotted the boyfriend standing on the sidewalk. Lunch in one hand, hard hat hard hat in the other, he had clearly been waiting for Brett. He gave a friendly wave, like an old friend, and jogged to the passenger door. Brett considered locking it, but had never been so aggressively rude before. He had no immediate reason to snub the guy, and besides, what might happen later if he did? Gritting his teeth, he opened the window and said, “Can I help you?”

Sure can,” the boyfriend said, opening the door from the inside and taking a seat. “Don’t know if you saw that bullshit yesterday, but the cops impounded my car. Said I had too many parking tickets. Like there’s ever enough parking at a construction site.”

Sounds pretty lousy.” Brett kept his foot on the brake. The passenger door was closed, but the guy hadn’t put on his seatbelt. Maybe he just wanted to talk.

You can say that again. And Laura doesn’t have a car, of course. You heard all about how her ex took off for Cali in it. She reported the theft, but they didn’t do a damn thing.”

No, I…”

Anyhow, Laura told me how you work at that school and it’s only like five blocks from my job, so I figured we’d be doing each other a favor if I rode with you, instead of me ordering an Uber every day.”

Brett had no idea how the woman—he never knew her name was Laura—knew he was a guidance counselor, or how giving this guy a ride would be a favor to himself, but there was nothing to be done.

Sure thing,” he said, mustering a friendly tone he didn’t feel. Almost immediately an alarm went off.

What’s that?” the boyfriend said.

Seatbelt,” Brett said, nodding at the empty socket.

Oh, right.” The boyfriend reached up for the buckle, passed it behind himself and clicked it in. That’s one way to shut the alarm, Brett thought.

Name’s Josh, by the way. Laura said you’re a good guy. I wasn’t sure, but I guess you’re all right. Even better than an Uber, huh?”

No worries,” Brett said. They passed the rest of the drive in an uncomfortable—at least for Brett—silence. Josh only spoke again when they got close to the job site. He directed Brett around a line of pick-ups and cars along the curb and on traffic islands near the gate.

See what I mean? And how the hell do they expect a guy to pay a ticket if he can’t get to work?” Shaking his head, he took his lunch and hat and got out of the car. As he slammed the door shut, a buddy walked by. They bumped fists and headed in to work. He never even looked back at Brett.

Despite a quiet night that led Brett and Emily to think the misbegotten relationship got towed away with the car, Josh was there on the sidewalk again the next morning. And the morning after that. Each time, Brett reminded himself that no good deed goes unpunished. They never spoke about what Brett might have heard or seen the previous night, no matter how loud the screaming and screwing got. Sometimes Brett even wondered if he was crazy and imagining those scenes, since Josh, for all his size and brusqueness, always had a smile and a wave, and if not a thank you, at least never said anything rude. Their rides turned into a cordial kind of limo service, without the pay and tip. And though Josh clearly felt entitled to the ride, Brett lost the sense he was being taken advantage of. At least it broke up the monotony.

After about a week, Josh climbed into his seat as usual. The seatbelt remained ever connected, but never around him. He checked a text, then reached to floor in front of him and adjusted the seat. Brett thought he’d seen something in his hand, but it came back empty after the seat moved up and back a couple of times, ending up in pretty much the same place.

All set there?” he ventured.

Hunky dory,” Josh told him. And then they were at the job site, and he was gone.

At school a few minutes later, Brett reached under the seat. Sure enough he found a baggie, similar to ones he’d pulled from more than a couple of kids’ bags. Oxy.

What the hell? Was he a mule now? Unsure of what to do, he stuffed it back under the seat.

The knowledge that he had contraband of his own hovered over Brett all day. He considered bringing it over to Laura when he got home, but again, it didn’t seem the right way to start a conversation: “Hey, I’ve been driving the guy that shouts at you. Thought you’d want to give this back to him.” Right.

Instead, Brett told Josh the next morning, “I think you dropped something.”

Yeah, thanks for watching over it. If you were an app driver, I’d give you a great rating. See, I got the call while we were on the road yesterday that inspectors were coming by. Can’t chance getting caught with that stuff.” He reached for the baggie and put it in his pocket.

Wait, that’s drugs?” As if he didn’t know. “What if I got caught?”

Josh looked at him and laughed. “When was the last time you got pulled over?”

Listen,” Brett said. “I don’t mind giving you a lift, but please don’t store that shit in my car. What if they brought the dogs to my school? They do that, you know.”

Jesus, calm down, bro. No more leaving shit in your car, all right?”

Thank you.” He’d won that round.

How much longer are you going to be his mule?” Emily asked a couple days later. The fights were raging next door.

I’m not his mule. He stored the stuff in my car for a day, and he won’t anymore.”

But even the rides. Every single morning. He owes you for gas. Look how much he’s saved on Ubers. Ask for a contribution.”

Brett shook his head. “No way. The building’s nearly done. And school’s out soon. One way or the other, it’s almost over.”

How does he get home? Maybe he should do whatever he does in the afternoon in the morning, too.”

I don’t see how I can get out of it now,” Brett said into his beer glass.

A plate shattered next door.

Find one,” Emily told him.

But a week later, the morning rides were in full swing. On Tuesday, Josh climbed in, but he didn’t have his lunch or hard hat.

Forget something?” Brett asked.

No, I banged in sick.”

Does he like my company that much?

You need to take me somewhere else,” Josh continued. “I’ll show you where.”

I need to get to school,” Brett said. But the car was moving.

Relax. You won’t be late. Go down here… and turn left there…”

In the end, Josh had led him to an industrial park. Half a dozen anonymous three-story buildings faced each other across roads that sprouted weeds and chunks of broken masonry. Brett didn’t see any cars except a moving van by the building on the far left.

Here’s good. See, you’ll still get to school on time. Adios.” He sauntered in the direction of the distant van. When Brett had turned the car around, he was still sauntering.

There was no immediate reason to connect Josh to the news later that day. Hundreds of moving vans plowed the streets every day, so really why should the particular one he saw that morning be the one that ran an armored car off the road? Anyhow, the three thieves had jumped out of the box with shotguns and loaded the money back into it. One of the guards survived, but with a concussion that would leave him permanently impaired. No witness descriptions of the perps, and besides, a thousand guys looked like Brett’s daily pax. But if it was him, then surely he’d be paying off those parking tickets.

So it was a little surprising that Josh was on the sidewalk Wednesday morning, again without his work gear.

Still sick?” Brett asked, his mouth a little dry.

You remember the way to the park, right?”

He did. This time, Josh told him to park out of view of the street, and to wait.

I need to get to school,” he argued, hating the feebleness in his whining. He was part of this now, and knew it.

When Josh got back to the car, he carried two heavy-looking duffle bags. One of them looked like a baseball equipment bag, without a bat. “Pop the trunk, will ya?” he said.

Do I want to know what’s in them?” he asked when Josh was settled next him.

In what?”

Josh directed him to a coffee shop downtown, where he got out. “You won’t need to open the trunk before you get home, will you, buddy? I got something for your wife, and what it is depends on your answer.”

Nope,” Brett answered promptly. “I could drive on a flat if I had to.”

Good boy.” He slapped the car roof, and Brett took off like the consummate hired driver.

He was already late for school. Sasha Brady would have to reschedule her appointment to go over those failing grades. But instead of heading to work, he parked at a hiking trail. His was the only car in the lot.

He popped the trunk. The two duffels were battered and dirty, as if they’d spent a lot of time on the diamond. After a quick scan of the surrounding woods, he took a rag and unzipped the smaller one, and found the stacks of bills he’d expected. He was pretty sure what would be in the equipment bag, too. Sure enough, the outside compartment, which should have held a glove and balls, instead contained a pair of pistols. Brett knew nothing about guns, but they were big and mean and told him everything he needed to know—which was not to look in the longer section.

He drove back to school with the exaggerated care of a student driver, or a drunk. He didn’t stick around after the dismissal bell.

One advantage to working 7 to 3 instead of 9 to 5 was that he avoided the rush hour traffic, and beat everyone home. Today, though, he pulled up just as Laura was emptying the latest supply of bottles into the recycling. She wasn’t dressed for work, and he briefly wondered if she and Josh were preparing to jet off to the Caribbean or wherever armored car robbers absconded to these days.

There was no way to avoid each other, so he said hello. It was the first time he’d spoken to her in the two years they’d been neighbors.

Hi,” she said, avoiding his eyes. He could see, now that he was up close, that it was more than plates that got smashed in her house. Her high collar and long sleeves didn’t quite cover all the bruises, and she moved stiffly.

I’ve been driving Josh to work,” he said. “I wanted to ask you, should I…”

Well, he needs the ride,” she said with a shrug.

No,” he said, the guidance counselor in him finally asserting itself. “I mean, if you were a student I’d be required to make a 51A report to the state, but since you’re over 18…”

Don’t,” she said. “I know you’ve heard shit over here. But it’s not as bad as it sounds. And if the police came to the door now, he told me, just a single bullet would kill us both.”

Is he here?”

She shook her head. “Of course not. He’s getting himself a car. We’ll be leaving tonight. Then your neighborhood will be quiet again.”

He didn’t bother asking her why she didn’t leave him, or made an anonymous call. He’d seen it too many times.

The apartment windows were closed, and the shades drawn. In just a few minutes, the air grew stale, then fetid. He moved to the bathroom and ran the shower. The cold water provided some relief, but not much.

He sat on the edge of the tub until he heard the front door open, then positioned himself where the open door would hide him.

Hey, Laura!” Josh called out. “Get out here!”

Josh tried the door, but it was locked. “Laura, come on out! Or you want me in there?” The knob rattled some more. It wasn’t a strong lock, and a single kick popped it open.

Brett expected that, and blocked his face as the door bounced off him.

Josh stepped into the room, stood perplexed at the empty shower.

Brett rushed him from behind, tripping him face down into the tub. Josh twisted onto his back, but Brett was ready for him. As soon as Josh was in a sitting position, he saw the barrel of the shotgun in his face.

No more ride sharing. I’m deactivating my account,” Brett told him. He pulled the trigger.

It looked a lot like a suicide. There was some question about why he would have done it with the shower running, and with his share of the loot in the next room, but Laura had been out with her good friend and neighbor Emily, and no one had seen anyone leave the house.

Not even that nosy guidance counselor watching from from next door, who couldn’t hear anything over the air conditioner.

J.M. Taylor cooks up his sinister fantasies in Boston where he lives with his wife and son. He has appeared in ToughWildside Black Cat, and AHMM, among others. His first novel, Night of the Furies, was published by New Pulp Press and his second, Dark Heat, by Genretarium. When he’s not writing, he teaches under an assumed name. You can find him at and on Facebook at Night of the Furies.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

The Devil's Plus-One, fiction by April Kelly


Shanika Wells turned up in town seventy-two hours after Big Vic’s murder, presumably to dance on his grave. Thirteen years ago she fled this small-minded, micro burg and no local event in the interim—including her own father’s funeral—had offered lure enough to inspire a return to the scene of her miserable childhood.

Back when he still went by his hated first name, Quintus Viccolander instigated the event that bonded Shanika and me. I was a scrawny six year old that fifth-grader Quintus decided was too effeminate, so he often cornered me and called me vile names, though never within earshot of a teacher. Before the days of #MeToo and being woke, there were still certain things you couldn’t say, even to a little sissy, without getting yourself in trouble.

That particular day I was minding my own business, kicking leaves behind a big oak tree that anchored the far corner of the playground. I didn’t really mind being alone, which worked out great, since most of the other boys were not inclined to play with the wimpy kid picked last for every team in gym class. I heard a crunch of leaves and cringed, knowing instantly who had found me and what I was in for.

“Yo, turd face! ‘Sup?”

Paralyzed by the threat in his voice, I hung my head and stayed mute.

“Answer me when I’m talking to you,” he snarled, before shoving his meaty palm into my sternum and knocking me flat on my back.

“What do you want me to say?” I managed to squeak out.

“Say I’m a little fag baby. Go on, say it!”

Emphasizing the demand, he planted his feet on either side of my thighs, towering over me with an intimidatingly wide stance that would have brought on my tears, had I not seen a tiny, mean-faced Black girl silently creeping up on Quintus from behind. He bent forward to spit his humiliating order into my face again, the move positioning him perfectly for a hard, upward kick to the jewels that dropped him to his knees. I scrambled out of the way before he hit the ground, and the little girl grabbed my hand so we could run to safety together while my tormentor gagged and went fetal.

That was the beginning of the bad blood between Shanika Wells and Quintus “Big Vic” Viccolander. He didn’t dare report the incident that left him limping for days, because of the hit his bully rep would have taken when word got out he’d been bested by a first-grade girl. On the down-low, however, he opened a smear campaign that lasted till the day she blew this pop stand.

And now Big Vic reposed in the most ostentatious casket his brother Quentin (a.k.a. Little Vic) could find and Shanika had waltzed back onto the scene.

A tinkling of the antique silver bells on my door signaled the entrance of a customer, as I grappled with a blue-dyed carnation wired to a short, wooden skewer, carefully attempting to position it in the foam base of a wing-spread dove without damaging the petals of the surrounding white roses.

“I’ll be right with you,” I said, sliding the sapphire eye into place.

“No hurry, Zee.”

I whirled around. More than a decade had passed since I’d heard the voice of the only person who ever called me Zee, but it was as sweet and familiar as if we were still kids sneaking our first smoke and trash-talking our math teacher. Backlit by the late afternoon sun streaming through the glass front of my shop, her facial features were obscured, but there was no mistaking those legs and that glorious mane.

During my childhood I witnessed her hair transform from the tight cornrows and stubby pigtails her mama inflicted on her with the hopeless goal of taming the untamable, into a ragged bush of chaos after Mrs. Wells passed when Shanika was twelve. By the time she hit sixteen, however, and mastered the products and techniques to capitalize on her abundant gift, an ethereal ebony cloud perpetually framed her beautiful face, undulating languidly and seductively as she glided down the hallway between classes.

And those legs! They’d been the knobby-kneed, bony limbs of an underfed pony in kindergarten, but by junior year of high school they had morphed into what one young lothario described as a pair of wet dreams beginning on the ground and rising all the way up to heaven.

Since I had been momentarily struck dumb, my visitor oiled the machinery of conversation with a reliable classic.

“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”

The offer was enough to snap me out of the shock at seeing my best friend after so many years.

“Nika,” I blurted out, rounding the counter and flying into her arms.

She had always been the taller half of our team, but with her four-inch heels, we connected clumsily forehead to chin until she threw her head back and laughed.

“Oh, Zee, I have purely missed you, dude. We need to catch up.”

I enthusiastically agreed, but swept my right arm wide to indicate the wreath-shaped forms covering the countertop and awaiting artfully arranged flowers of every size and color.

“I’m swamped on a deadline for a funeral tomorrow, but you can perch your fine caboose on one of those stools and I’ll bring you a cup of coffee from the back. That way I can keep working while you fill me in on everything you’ve been up to.”

Without waiting for a response, I disappeared into the nook behind the flower cooler and selected a crème brûlée brewing pod.

“Who died?” she called out from the front.

“You didn’t hear?” I spun my hand in a tight circle, as if the Keurig could interpret the gesture as a request to speed things up.

“Well, I haven’t kept a subscription to the local rag, so you’ll have to tell me the beneficiary of your floral creations.”

“The very editor of that rag, Big Vic.”

I heard her rich, throaty laugh again, this time underscored with delight.

“Please tell me ol’ Quintus’s death was protracted and painful.”

I rounded the cooler to hand her a steaming, ceramic mug.

“Well, it wasn’t as protracted as many of us would have wished, but it sure as hell must’ve been painful.”

Her face lit up, and justifiably so. Although Big Vic had done a lot of shitty things to a lot of people, he always reserved his worst for Shanika. Among the many awful stunts he had pulled over the years was starting a rumor about her alleged involvement with a fifteen-year-old boy who committed suicide. Randy Holland wrote a note saying he had no reason to live if he couldn’t be with Shanika, then hanged himself in his bedroom. By then, Big Vic had graduated and begun apprenticing for his father at the newspaper, so he enlisted Little Vic—still in our grade—to spread word at school that she had treated the boy cruelly, leading him on, teasing him, and laughing in his face when he declared his love for her.

Was it true? No. Did anyone care? Again, no. The story spread, regardless of the fact that Shanika never even had a conversation with the unfortunate boy. In fact, a few days before he took his life, she found a childishly crafted love note in her locker and handed it to me.

“Who the hell is Randy Holland?” she asked, before taking back the note and tossing it in a trash can, assuming it was someone’s idea of a joke. My guess is the kid was somewhere nearby, watching to see her response. Next thing you know, Randy’s dangling and the mean girl squad of campus influencers, envious of Shanika’s over-the-summer transformation into a breathtaking beauty, gleefully embraced and spread the Viccolander boys’ fake news spin on the tragedy.

Who they should have blamed was Big Vic, for lying, or maybe the shrink who treated the troubled teen for years. Turns out Dr. Feelgood prescribed the wrong anti-psychotic and tipped his young patient right over the edge.

Barely a year later, when a college boy died in a single car crash, speeding away in fury after seventeen-year-old Shanika turned down his unexpected proposal, Big Vic used his newspaper’s gossip column to indict an unnamed high school girl for having caused the deaths of two men. Yes, he left her name out, but he dubbed her “the devil’s plus-one,” and no one doubted the identity of the accused. The mean girls gave life to the lie, and, soon, blasé teens routinely quipped that if you invited Satan to a party, Shanika Wells would be his date. And so she slipped out of town one night with only a backpack full of thrift-shop clothes and the forty bucks I had saved from my pizza delivery job.

Shanika sipped her coffee while I poked flower stems into foam forms and repeated the snippets that had fed the rumor mill for the three days since Big Vic had been found, gruesomely murdered in his office at the Crowder County Gazette. In addition to hearing all the lurid details passed from person to person like a relay race for gossip, I possessed inside info courtesy of the smoking hot deputy I had quietly dated for months.

They found Big Vic duct-taped to his leather executive chair, covered in lumps and contusions consistent with a beating from the baseball bat discarded at the scene. He had been shot through the heart and one knee. Sadistically placed cigarette burns had caused Little Vic to upchuck his Denny’s Grand Slam when he discovered his older brother’s corpse.

“Along with the bat, they found a meth pipe and a hammer on the floor. Sheriff Cook’s working theory is a couple of tweakers wanted into the safe, but Big Vic refused to give up the combination. From the patch of scratches and gouges around the opening mechanism, it seems as though the perps went all medieval on the safe after they gave up whaling on Vic and finished him off.”

Shanika snorted in disgust, before saying “Only in this rubbish town could someone be dumb enough to think they could break into a double-walled, one-ton Amsec with a claw hammer.”

That safe had been a topic of speculation several years back when Big Vic installed it at the newspaper office. The Crowder County Gazette had fewer than eight thousand subscribers and barely broke even. So, why did it need such an enormous safe?

Some folks claimed Little Vic deposited the cash from his strip club there every night after closing, but that still would have left multiple cubic feet of empty space. Made people wonder what other unsavory pies the siblings might have stuck their dirty fingers into.

By the time the last foam circle was beribboned, beflowered and crammed into the cooler, it was almost nine, so Shanika and I headed to our favorite burger drive-through from the old days, then carried the paper bags of heart attack roulette back to her room at the Hyatt. The twentyish kid at the desk cast envious eyes on me as I walked toward the elevators accompanied by what must have looked to him like a visiting supermodel. He wasn’t old enough to have firsthand knowledge of Shanika’s sordid reputation.

We laughed, talked, reminisced and made a dent in the mini bar’s stock as I updated her on thirteen years of weddings, divorces, scandals and petty feuds, most of them involving people she once knew. And while I was forthcoming about my own life—both professional and romantic—Shanika deflected every one of my inquiries into her own travels and activities since her disappearing act one month into our senior year, after which post cards and the occasional extremely brief letter from her marked the parameters of our one-way communication. Those precious (to me) tidbits were postmarked from a different city every time, some of them exotic and foreign, so I surmised her life was way more exciting than mine.

Shortly before two in the morning, I made my excuses: early wake-up, ginormous delivery to the funeral home chapel the next day, blah-blah-blah, but as she walked me to the door of her room, I made one last attempt to glean some details about her life. Earlier, when she kicked off her shoes, I clocked their red soles and knew they had cost a small fortune. My curiosity was piqued.

“Nika, you know I would take any secret of yours to my grave, so, please, won’t you tell me the truth about where you’ve been and how you’ve been getting by?”

She leaned against the open door and gazed at me, her glistening brown soul windows unfocused after four miniature bottles of Hennessy. Lightly grazing my cheek with her perfectly manicured nails, she whispered, “Like they say in the movies, sweetheart, you can’t handle the truth.”

My own indulgence in two itty-bitty Tia Marias emboldened me.

“That’s bullshit and you know it. I was always there for you and I always will be.” Getting shut out of her life thirteen years earlier broke my heart, but her refusal to share any of it with me now that she was back piled insult on top of injury.

My reminder that I was her oldest ally and confidante must have gotten through to her, because she suddenly sighed with resignation. We stood close enough that the oaky, fruity aroma of cognac on her breath wafted into my nostrils.

“Zee, what do you think the career options are for a runaway high school drop-out who finds herself in an unfamiliar city with forty dollars and no marketable skills?”

She took a step back and swept her right hand down to draw my attention to her perfectly proportioned body, a stark reminder that, although I was immune to those formidable assets, no straight male over the age of twelve could look upon them without prurient thoughts. An understanding of what she implied caused a clenching in my gut, quickly followed by guilt for having insisted on answers to questions I had no right to ask. Before I could apologize, she barreled ahead.

“I’ll tell you what my choice was. I developed a set of skills for which very wealthy men are willing to pay top dollar.”

“Shanika,” I said, before she could go on. “I would never judge you and I don’t want to hear any more.”

“Maybe you don’t want to hear more, but you need to know the truth about me, if only to decide if you still want to be friends.

Before she could share further details, I turned and ran like the coward I am and have always been.

The day of Big Vic’s funeral, I woke with a hangover and guilt. I owed Shanika an apology for forcing her to admit to an embarrassing truth, but a vanload of floral arrangements needed delivering and I had a service to attend. Deciding I would skip out before the interment and go to the Hyatt to beg forgiveness, I scoured the flower cooler for the best of the leftovers and put together a dramatic bouquet to pair with a groveling mea culpa.

After filling the modest chapel with colorful but insincere condolence displays for a dead bully who was universally loathed, I had thirty minutes to kill before the service started, not enough time to go see Shanika, but time enough to call her. I had not thought to ask for her cell phone number the night before, as I was besotted and brainless in her presence, so I called the Hyatt and asked to be connected to her room. The dozen unanswered rings told me she either wasn’t there or did not want to speak with me.

Seated in the last row, I didn’t notice her at the service, so I followed the cars to the cemetery in case she showed up there. Again I swept my eyes over the attendees without finding her. Bored with a droning list of the deceased’s good qualities the pastor had obviously manufactured out of thin air, I let my eyes roam the acres of headstones, many of them shaded by mature trees with spreading canopies.

A flash of movement caught my eye, a swaying cloud of black hair mostly hidden behind the trunk of a huge elm tree about fifty feet away. Shanika stepped from behind the tree, but I couldn’t be sure she was looking at me until she smiled and blew a kiss in my direction. There was no way I could retreat through the crowd and go to her without drawing disapproving notice, so I anxiously waited for those first dropped long-stem roses (provided, of course, by me) and the sound of the initial shovelful of dirt hitting the gold-festooned mahogany before making my getaway.

Carrying the lavish apology bouquet into the hotel lobby, I asked the desk clerk to ring her room. Instead, he handed me a key and said he had been instructed to send me up when I arrived.

Respectful of the Do Not Disturb sign hanging on the door, I knocked. When no answer came, I had a moment of concern for her safety and quickly unlocked the door to enter a cleared-out room. No clothes in the drawers or compact hanging space. No toiletries in the bathroom. Held down by the clock radio on the nightstand was a ten dollar bill, presumably a tip for the housekeeper who would come in the next day, and a note for me.

Zachary, it was great to catch up. See you again at Little Vic’s funeral. Love always, your Nika.

The only other item on the nightstand was a matchbook from the Wander Inn, a run-down motel a mile outside of town, best known as a trysting place for lovers married to others, and an overnight stop for weary travelers who couldn’t bear another hour of driving, but didn’t want to pay the price of a decent hotel.

Why a matchbook? Shanika doesn’t smoke. I’m hypersensitive to the smell of tobacco, and would have noticed it on her breath or clothes. And what reason did she have to visit the Wander Inn? Perhaps because I had no other mementos of her brief visit, I pocketed the matches along with the note. Once home, I phoned the Wander Inn and asked for her, but was told they had no one registered under that name.

When I didn’t hear from her over the next week, I cursed myself for being an insensitive clod, but remained puzzled about why she had insisted I needed to know the truth about her if I were to remain her friend. And if she wanted me to know the truth, why didn’t she stick around long enough to convey that information? My mind went back to the matchbook I’d found. Could she have chosen a more oblique way to communicate what she felt I should know about her? Perhaps a way that spared her the face-to-face awkwardness of enlightening me about the life of a high-class call girl?

With the sleazy motel’s matchbook as my only lead, I put together a lovely arrangement of peach roses, white peonies and cascading sprigs of Lily-of-the-Valley. If Shanika was staying at the Wander Inn under a different name, the bouquet would be my personal apology; if she wasn’t in residence, a delivery of flowers would justify requesting information from the staff.

Wearing my short-sleeved work shirt with Zach’s Floral Creations embroidered on the breast pocket, I approached the slacker watching TV behind the stained and scratched counter.

He didn’t bother looking up from whatever athletic competition was inspiring the tinny roar of enthusiastic fans, when I said: “Delivery for Ms. Shanika Wells.”

“No one here by that name.”

“Maybe she’s using a different name.”

“Nah. She used her real name when she was here, but she ain’t here anymore.”

Okay, first clue. I asked if I could check the register to see the dates of her stay.

“Knock yourself out,” he said, flailing one hand in the direction of a worn, spiral notepad at the end of the counter, without taking his eyes off the TV screen. “Go! Go! Go, you son of a bitch,” he shouted, his involvement deep enough that I could have easily made off with something valuable, had their been anything of value in the shabby office.

Paging backwards in the notepad, I found Shanika’s name. She had checked in four days prior to Big Vic’s murder, and checked out three days after it. Her departure date coincided with the day she checked into the Hyatt, the day I had assumed she blew into town.

She obviously had enough money to stay at a nicer place than the Wander Inn, so why did she spend a week there before moving over to what passes locally for a luxury hotel? What reason would she have to obfuscate her arrival date?


A sickening suspicion compelled me to parse every word she said to me during her brief stay.

Only in this rubbish town could someone be dumb enough to think they could break into a double-walled, one-ton Amsec with a claw hammer.

Had I mentioned the safe was an American Security product? I didn’t think so. And, even if I did, how would she know it was double-walled and weighed one ton? For that matter, was she merely guessing the hammer was a claw, as opposed to a club style or ball peen? Or did she know because she was present at the scene?

I developed a set of skills for which very wealthy men are willing to pay top dollar.

My immediate assumption had gone to the prurient, the obvious. And I thought it was the shame of being a prostitute that caused her to demur when I asked her outright about her life. Now I wondered if it wasn’t shame, but fear, that kept her silent, made her willing to reveal her secret in only the most roundabout way. If I took my suspicions to Sheriff Cook—which, of course, I would never do—could he connect her to the bat, the meth pipe or the gun that killed Big Vic ?

The sloppy crime scene indicated incompetence, the careless leavings of a couple tweaked out meth-heads. But maybe it had been designed to look like something other than what it was: a calculated, ruthless hit. I recalled the cigarette burns, telling myself there was no way Shanika could have deliberately inflicted such torture on another human being, even one as scummy as Quintus “Big Vic” Viccolander, who, along with Quentin “Little Vic” Viccolander, had made her life a living hell for more than a decade: called her the N-word; lied about having had sex with her; accused her of not just using, but selling drugs.

Desperately searching for a shred of proof she was a lady of the evening, not a killer for hire doing off-the-books work for her own revenge, I came up empty.

But then, I recalled her note on the night stand at the Hyatt, and suddenly knew without a doubt what she did for a living.

See you again at Little Vic’s funeral. Love always, your Nika.

 April Kelly is a former TV comedy writer (Mork & Mindy, Webster, Boy Meets World, ad nauseum) who now writes short fiction. Her work has appeared in Down & Out Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Mystery Weekly (now Mystery Magazine), Tough Crime, Mysterical-E, Floyd County Moonshine, DASH Literary Journal and many other publications. Her story Oh, Here! won enough money to buy a car (toy, plastic, model: Dollar General) in the Mark Twain royal Nonesuch Humor Contest.