Monday, April 22, 2024

The Big Snip, fiction by Michael Bracken


My client lay on a hospital bed in the ICU, a machine breathing for her. Luckily, the baby was okay, but the blow to the side of Sydney Langstrom’s head had resulted in a traumatic brain injury, and several hours of surgery had not guaranteed a positive outcome, though the surgeon was hopeful.

* * *

A week earlier, Alice Frizell had sent Sydney upstairs to my office. Alice was the wisp of a tattoo artist who worked for my landlord, Millard Wayne Trout, owner of Millie’s Tattoos and Piercings, which operated out of the ground floor of a two-story building on Washington Avenue. Alice volunteered her time at a women’s shelter and had helped several women escape abusive relationships, occasionally with assistance from Millie and me.

Mr. Boyette?” the blonde coed said as she crested the stairs and saw me sitting behind my desk at one end of the second-floor’s single room. As I confirmed my identity, I rose to shake her hand. She introduced herself before settling into one of the chairs on the visitor side of my desk and then added, “I’m pregnant.”

I was uncertain what I should do with that information. “Do you need help traveling out of state to—”

She shook her head vigorously. “Oh, no, no, nothing like that. God forbid.”

Then what can I do for you?”

I need you to find the father.”

He skip town without a forwarding address?”

I wish it were that simple.” She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “I don’t even know who he is.”

I had questions, but she held up her hand to stop me before I could ask any of them.

Alice told me not to hold anything back, but I need to tell this my way.” And she did, beginning with an invitation to a frat party she barely remembered when she awoke in her own bed, her blouse misbuttoned and her underwear missing. “I knew something was wrong,” she said, “but I didn’t realize how wrong until a few weeks later. I took a home pregnancy test, and then I knew.”

As soon as Sydney saw the test result, she reported her situation to campus police. They took her statement. They also took a urine sample and a hair sample to test for flunitrazepam—better known by the brand name Rohypnol. More than two weeks had passed since the night she may have consumed the drug, and there was no trace of it in her system. Campus police interviewed a handful of people who were at the party, but few of them remembered seeing Sydney and no one saw her leave. At nine weeks, she could have a DNA test of the developing child, but she needed paternal DNA for comparison.

Campus police had done nothing for her. She concluded, “But someone saw something. Someone knows something.”

I don’t know that I can do any better than the campus police,” I said.

You certainly can’t do worse.”

I told her my day rate and she asked if I could take Venmo. I could, and by the time Sydney left my office, I had eight hundred dollars, a signed contract, and a list of people she remembered seeing at the party. She had a copy of my business card with my name—Morris Ronald Boyette—and my contact information thermographed on the front.

* * *

After my new client left, I walked downstairs to the tattoo parlor. Alice had a woman in her chair and Millie was entertaining Alice’s new border collie. Milo wore a cone of shame to keep him from licking himself following that morning’s neutering, and I reached inside the cone to scratch behind his ears.

Millie asked, “How’s it hanging, Moe Ron?”

No one else called me that. No one else dared. I replied, “Lower than Milo. You?”

Business is slow.” He indicated the woman Alice was inking. “Best we could do today is a trade with Milo’s vet.”

I took a closer look at the woman in the chair as Alice finished and pulled off her gloves. In her forties, muscular with graying hair cut high and tight, she had several cats inked on her left arm and several dogs on her right. Alice had just finished inking a chihuahua’s face between a German shepherd and a pug.

What’s with the menagerie?” I asked.

They’re the ones I couldn’t save.” She pointed to the bandage Alice had placed over her new tattoo. “Just the other day, I lost Pikachu to an aggressive cancer.”

She thanked Alice for her work, reminded her of Milo’s care plan, and headed out.

As she moseyed down the sidewalk toward her truck, I watched through the storefront windows. “The other tats don’t look like your work.”

They aren’t,” Alice said. “Drew—Drew Templeton—moved here a few months ago when she retired as an army veterinarian and took over a practice out by my place. We got to talking when I took Milo in for the big snip. She was looking for a local tattoo artist, so I offered a trade.”

Getting the lowdown on Alice’s newest client wasn’t my reason for visiting Millie’s, so I refocused my attention. “Sydney Langstrom just left my office. She said you sent her.”

I did,” Alice said. “Can you help her?”

I repeated what my client had told me and asked Alice if she knew anything more than I did.

She isn’t the first girl who’s been taken advantage of,” she said. “A lot of them just want to forget it ever happened, put it all behind them, and try to move on.”

What do you think she’ll do if I find the baby’s father?”

I don’t know,” Alice said. “I couldn’t get a good read on her.”

* * *

My first stop was at the apartment of Paige Ethridge, the girl who had invited Sydney to the party. A slim brunette wearing a university T-shirt and jeans, she invited me inside, offered sweet tea, and swore she’d told campus police everything she remembered about that night.

We walked over together ’cause Syd lives a block or so that way”—she waved vaguely northward—“and I had to walk past her place to get to the party, so we get there and, I don’t know, we hung together for maybe ten minutes, and then I saw Derek, a guy I know from sociology class, and he was with some other guy. Anyhow, me and Derek started talking and next thing I know Syd’s disappeared.”

She stopped for a breath, so I asked, “Disappeared?”

Not, like, literally. She must have been around somewhere, she just wasn’t hanging with me anymore. So, me and Derek hung together for the rest of the night. I didn’t see Syd again until a couple of days later, and she didn’t say anything about anything until, like, two weeks after the party, and she asked if I knew who she left with. I didn’t. I still don’t, and that’s what I told the campus cops.”

When I showed Paige the list of attendees Sydney had given me, she acknowledged seeing some of the people named on the short list, added a few more, and then shrugged.

I asked her several additional questions, trying to pry useful information out of her, but she had nothing else to offer.

* * *

Derek Jones answered my third knock, wearing nothing but an undershirt and a pair of tighty-whities, looking as if he’d just rolled out of bed. He didn’t invite me in, and we stood in the open doorway as I told him who I was and what I wanted.

I don’t know anything,” he said. He confirmed that he’d spent most of the evening with Paige. “Sydney, the girl she came with? I don’t know who she left with.”

He didn’t have anything else to tell me, and he didn’t add any names to the list Sydney had given me, even when I asked about the guy Paige had seen him talking to. “I don’t remember.”

After leaving Derek, I moved on to the next name on the list, another student who lived in the neighborhood around the university.

During the next few days, I knocked on dozens more doors and spoke to dozens more students without learning much more than I already knew. Almost everyone I spoke with remembered someone else who was at the party, so my list of students to track down grew ever longer. Each evening, after I felt certain her afternoon classes had ended, I phoned my client to update her on my growing list and my lack of progress.

I wasn’t pleased with the little I had to report each day, but Sydney insisted I continue, repeating her admonition from our first meeting.

Someone knows something, Mr. Boyette,” she said each time, reminding me, on more than one occasion, that Alice Frizell had insisted I was her only hope. I worried that Alice had oversold my capabilities.

* * *

Late one afternoon, after my daily conversation with Sydney, I phoned Bonita Martinez, the attorney I was keeping time with, and suggested we meet for dinner.

I had not seen Bonita since taking Sydney’s case because she had been out of town. So, over spring rolls and pineapple fried rice at a Vietnamese restaurant downtown, she told me about helping her daughter get settled in her new San Antonio apartment and I told her about Sydney.

You find the father,” Bonita said, “I’ll make certain he pays child support.”

You think he’ll want visitation?”

Not when I get through with him.”

Our conversation drifted toward more pleasant topics, including plans to attend a Lyle Lovett concert out of town.

I had hoped to extend dinner into an evening at Bonita’s home, but a phone call as we were leaving the restaurant changed my plans. I saw Millie’s name on my cell phone’s caller ID, so I answered. “What’s up?”

Alice needs our help.”

That only meant one thing. One of the women she was helping needed to relocate in a hurry.

Bonita could hear Millie’s voice even though I did not have the phone on speaker. “Go,” she said. “Stop by after. It doesn’t matter what time.”

We had reached Bonita’s car by then, so I kissed her and headed to my car. I still had my phone pressed to my ear and Millie provided the address where I should meet him.

* * *

Tattoos covered every visible part of Millie’s body but his face and his palms, and his appearance was frightening enough to shrink the average man’s testicles. That’s why Alice, Jessie, and I stood behind him when he pounded on the door of a single-wide mobile home in Robinson, a town that butted up against the southeast side of Waco.

The man who jerked the door open was every bit as intimidating as Millie, with muscular arms, a thick torso and heavy belly that stretched the fabric of his too-tight wife-beater, and a face that broke mirrors when he glanced in their direction. “Yeah?”

Millie said, “We came for Jessie’s things.”

Jessie’s husband looked around Millie and saw the rest of us. “You brought reinforcements, Jessie?”

Talk to me,” Millie said.

Tipsy?” Jessica said as she tried to squeeze around us. “Where’s my dog? Where’s Tipsy?”

I kicked her little ass—”

The dog? You kicked the f’ing dog?” Millie’s right hand shot forward, breaking the man’s nose. I didn’t see the brass knuckles until Millie drew back his fist.

Jessie’s husband stepped backward but didn’t fall. He didn’t even react to the blood pouring from his broken nose. As he raised his fists to defend himself, Millie drove a bootheel into his kneecap. Jessie’s husband stumbled backward and dropped backward into a La-Z-Boy recliner. I doubted he could get up, but he maintained his attitude.

You want the little bitch, you can take her, and good riddance to the lot of you.”

I didn’t know if he meant the dog or his wife.

Get your stuff,” Alice commanded. “I’ll look for Tipsy.”

Jessie wasn’t much bigger than Alice, with a black eye and bruises on her arms and neck. I walked her past her husband to their bedroom and stood in the doorway, watching her gather her things. She didn’t have luggage, so she stuffed everything into several plastic trash bags, and I helped her carry them out to Alice’s pickup.

As we loaded the last of Jessie’s things, Alice rounded the far end of the mobile home with a West Highland White Terrier in her arms. “I found Tipsy.”

The woman ran toward her, crying.

Alice handed the dog to me. “I already phoned Drew. She’ll be waiting at the clinic. Get Tipsy there as fast as you can.”

* * *

Tipsy’s going to be okay,” Drew said an hour later, “I’ll need to keep her a few days for observation, but I won’t be adding her to my arm anytime soon.”

I don’t think her person will be able to pay for your services.”

Don’t worry about it.” Drew eased the Westie into a small cage between an ailing dachshund and a cross-eyed pug. “Alice told me what she does with her free time, and I told her I would help any way I could. There aren’t always enough resources for abused women, but there’re hardly any for their pets.”

She asked how I’d gotten involved with Alice, and I told her about my long-term relationship with her employer. “Millie wasn’t my landlord when we first met,” I said. “I had an office behind his place, and back then I did a lot of work for a bail bondsman. Millie picked up extra folding money helping me. After a few years, when his business increased, he hired Alice. So, I’ve known them for a long time.”

Well, you let me know if there’s ever anything I can do.”

After I told her I would, I headed to Bonita’s house, where we shared a bottle of wine and the pleasure of each other’s company.

* * *

The next morning, I drove from Bonita’s home, where I kept a toothbrush and a change of clothes, to my office. I paid bills, answered a few emails, and agreed to serve a subpoena in Lorena for a downtown law office. I didn’t return to work on Sydney’s case until early afternoon.

As before, the first few students I spoke with either had no memory of Sydney being at the party or, if they did remember seeing her, hadn’t seen her leave. Then I knocked on Madison Cromwell’s door.

Madison wasn’t on Sydney’s list. I’d added her when one of the other students mentioned having seen her there. The plump brunette opened her apartment door as far as the safety chain would allow. I slipped my business card through the opening, told her who I was, and explained why I wanted to talk to her.

She backed away from the door and used her cell phone to dial my number. My phone rang, so I answered it. “We good?”

Madison unfasted the safety chain and let me into her living room. She wore a crisp white blouse, a blue skirt, and mid-height black heels. She settled onto the couch and smoothed her skirt over her knees. I settled onto an overstuffed chair on the other side of a coffee table that held an empty coffee mug, several magazines, and an open laptop computer. As we sat facing each other, she made me repeat the reason for my visit.

Like many of the other students I’d spoken with, she didn’t know Sydney, but she had used her cell phone to take photographs of the party, and she had transferred the photos to her computer. We scrolled through them, looking for Sydney and anyone she might have been speaking with. I saw one photo of my client with Paige and Derek, another of her talking to a coed I had already interviewed, and one of her accepting a drink from someone who stood off camera. I had Madison enlarge the photograph until we were looking at a close-up view of the hand presenting the drink to her. The hand clearly belonged to someone male and there was a gold signet ring on his left pinky finger.

I looked up at Madison. “You show this to campus police?”

She shook her head. “They never contacted me.”

They had given up too soon, confirming my client’s belief that they hadn’t done enough.

I asked Madison to email the photos to me, but she said there were too many. “How about I Dropbox them?”

She used the email address on my business card to share a folder with me, and then she copied all her party photos into it. When she finished, she said, “I hope you catch the guy.”

I thanked her, returned to my office, and had to have Alice Frizell come upstairs to show me how to access the Dropbox folder. Milo was with her but without the cone of shame, and he curled up on my couch while we examined all the photos on my Macintosh’s large screen.

Madison had not been taking photos of people’s hands, and of the few male hands we could see in the photos, only the one handing Sydney a drink wore a signet ring.

I enlarged the photo of the ring and printed several copies on high quality photo paper. Even then, neither Alice nor I could read the initials monogrammed on it.

* * *

That afternoon and the next day, I finished visiting all the students named on the extended list. In addition to my questions, I showed them the photo of the signet ring. That elicited the same reactions as my questions. Only a few remembered Sydney, none remembered seeing her leave, and no one recognized the ring.

I had no one else to interview, so I started over at the top of the list, this time intending to ask about the ring. Paige Ethridge opened her door before I had a chance to knock.

I saw you pull in,” she said. “Did you find the guy? Tell me you found the guy.”

I told her I hadn’t, and I showed her the photo of the ring.

She stared hard at it. “I don’t know, maybe. Not many guys wear rings on their pinky fingers. I mostly see guys wearing their high school class rings. I’ve even see a few wearing wedding rings. Imagine that, married and not even finished with college. I don’t know why—”

You’re certain you’ve never seen the ring before?”

I can’t say. I just don’t know.” She squinted hard. “What’s that on the ring? Is that, like, someone’s initials?”

I told her I thought so.

Too bad you can’t read them. That would help a lot, wouldn’t it?”

I told her it would.

You thirsty?” she asked. “I’m sorry, I should have asked earlier. I was just so excited to think you might have found the guy who attacked Sydney. Do you want some sweet tea?”

I declined her offer, thanked her, and took my leave.

* * *

I visited Derek Jones’s apartment next. He wasn’t home, so I revisited the next half dozen people on my list and discovered that showing them the photograph of the ring didn’t generate any new information.

After a quick dinner at Vitek’s Market, I returned to Derek’s. He jerked open the door, saw me, and said, “You again. What do you want now?”

He was dressed this time, in jeans and a university T-shirt, and again he stood in his open doorway blocking my entrance. I showed him the photograph.

He barely glanced at it. “Nope. Don’t know anything.”

I didn’t like his attitude, so I pressed the flat of my hand against his chest and encouraged him to step backward and continue stepping backward until his calves hit a mangy green couch. He sat abruptly. I dropped the photograph into his lap. “Take a closer look.”

He glanced at the photograph but didn’t touch it.

Paige said you were talking to someone when she met you at the party.”

Yeah, so?”

What’s his name?”

Bite me.”

I grabbed the front of his shirt, lifted him to his feet, and pressed my forehead against his. As I stared into his eyes, said, “How hard do you want to make this?”

His eyes went wide when he realized I was serious. For all his attitude, Derek was weak, and he broke. He swallowed hard. “Eddie.”

His full name.”

Edward Barron Winthrop.”

Winthrop’s name wasn’t on my list. I directed Derek’s gaze to the photograph on the floor. “He wear a ring like this?”

I never—yes—yes, he does wear a ring. Maybe that’s his.”

And he left the party with Sydney Langstrom?”

Maybe. He left with somebody. It could have been her.”

And how do you know?”

He told me about it after.”

I made Derek repeat what Winthrop had told him, and I had no way to know if what he said was true because Sydney had not remembered a thing about that night. Then Derek added, “He kept her underwear. He always keeps their underwear.”

That’s when I knew. “There have been others?”

I don’t know. That’s what he says.” He dug in his pocket and then handed me a snack-sized baggie containing a single pill. “He gave me this. It’s a roofie. Eddie says he can get me more if I want them.”

You use one of these on Paige?”

He shook his head vigorously. “No. Never.”

I told him what would happen to him if I ever heard different. Then I shoved the pill into my pocket and Derek back onto the couch. “How do I find Winthrop?”

He graduated last December, but he still lives nearby, and he still comes to some of the parties.” He gave me an address.

* * *

Edward Barron Winthrop lived better than most of the students I had visited, in a two-bedroom brick bungalow with a recent model Cadillac Escalade parked in the driveway. After he responded to my knock, I identified myself and showed him my business card. He didn’t take it from my hand. Instead, he invited me inside, offered me a drink, and poured himself three fingers of scotch when I declined.

He didn’t sit, so neither did I, and I looked around. Unlike most of the apartments I had been visiting, which were decorated in college-student chic and furnished with cast-offs, Winthrop’s living room featured black leather furniture, chrome-and-glass end tables, and several baseball trophies but no books in the bookcase. An aluminum baseball ball leaned against a small table near the door, and a baseball cap and a fielder’s glove wrapped around a hardball lay atop the table.

He held his drink in his left hand. After taking a sip, he asked, “What can I do for you?”

Sydney Langstrom.”

Doesn’t ring a bell.”

I showed him the photograph. “This is you handing her a drink at a frat party a few weeks ago.”

He glanced at it. “That’s just a hand.”

And that’s your ring on it.”

His gaze darted to his left hand. If I had blinked, I would have missed it. “So?”

What was in the drink?”

Looks like a Coke on the rocks.”

You roofie’d her.”

Doubt you could prove it, even if I had.” He took another sip of his Scotch.

She’s pregnant.”

And she thinks I’m the sperm donor?” he sputtered. “She want me to pay for the procedure? Well, too fucking bad. She’s not getting a cent from me.”

You think she wants money?”

What does any woman want from a guy like me?”

I don’t think any woman wants anything from a guy like you. That’s why you drug them.”

He smirked. “As if.”

I knew I wouldn’t get an admission from Winthrop, but I knew what he had done. I just needed to prove it, and I needed to prove it long before Sydney could get a DNA test on her unborn child.

I thanked him for his time and stepped toward the door.

As I opened it, Winthrop said, “Next time you want to talk to me, call my father’s attorney.”

* * *

I phoned Sydney to let her know I might have found her baby’s father. I checked my watch when my client didn’t answer, realized she was in her afternoon English Lit class, and left a brief message. Then Alice phoned and told me Tipsy was ready to return home. I drove out to Drew’s clinic and picked up a carry crate with the Westie inside. I didn’t know the location of the women’s shelter, so I headed downtown, took Tipsy into Millie’s, and left the little dog with Alice and Milo.

By then I was late for a dinner date with Bonita and didn’t think about Sydney again until halfway through dessert when Bonita asked how my search was going. I told her I’d found the father and that I had left a voice mail telling my client I had found him.

And she hasn’t returned your call?”

I took out my phone and looked for missed calls and missed text messages. I didn’t see anything from Sydney. “Not yet.”

I tried calling her. Again, she didn’t answer. I left another voice mail.

Think you should check on her?”

Do you mind? We can swing by her apartment on the way home.”

Half an hour later we found Sydney’s apartment door open and her lying on the kitchen floor, a pool of blood matting her hair and surrounding her head. While I ensured that my client was still breathing, Bonita phoned first responders.

* * *

As we waited for the EMTs, I contacted Millie, told him about Sydney, and asked him to pick me up at her apartment complex because I needed to leave my car with Bonita.

An ambulance arrived, and the EMTs pushed us aside as they worked on Sydney I ducked out before the police arrived, leaving Bonita to answer their questions, and I waited in the alley behind the building for Millie.

On the way to Winthrop’s home, I brought Millie up to speed on my case, showing him the roofie Derek had given me and dropping the little plastic bag on his car’s center console as he pulled into the alley behind Winthrop’s home.

We watched the place for several minutes. Once we were certain Winthrop was alone, I walked around to the front door and leaned into the bell.

Winthrop answered, a smirk on his face.

Behind him I saw the little table with the baseball cap, glove, and hardball on it. The aluminum bat was gone. “You didn’t hit a homerun,” I said. “She’s still alive.”

The smirk disappeared.

I lied and said, “And she can identify you.”

Winthrop spun around and ran through the house, with me close behind. I needn’t have bothered. As he burst out of the back door, Millie clotheslined him, and he dropped like a sack of rocks. We zip tied his hands behind his back and tossed him into the trunk of Millie’s car.

As I was about to close the lid, Millie’s said, “Will you look at that?”

I turned to see the handle of an aluminum bat sticking out of the trash bin next to the garage. Mille had a plastic grocery bag I could use as a makeshift glove, and I pulled the blood-stained bat from the bin and tossed it into the trunk with Winthrop.

I wanted to deliver both to the Waco Police, but Millie had another idea. He wouldn’t tell me what he had planned when he dropped me off outside his tattoo parlor.

You go on now,” he said. “I got this.”

What’re you going to do?”

Nothing you need to know about.”

I phoned Bonita to let her know where I was, and then I entered the tattoo parlor to visit with Alice, Milo, and Tipsy until Bonita arrived.

* * *

The next morning, a maid found Edward Barron Winthrop in a cheap Lacy-Lakeview motel room, naked except for a cone of shame around his neck, his testicles in a jar of formaldehyde on the dresser, and a baseball bat with my client’s blood on it in the bed with him. He tested positive for flunitrazepam and had no memory of the previous evening.

When police found a cache of flunitrazepam and a dozen pairs of women’s underwear—all different sizes and styles—in Winthrop’s apartment, they were less concerned about his surgery and more about locating his victims.

During the following months, DNA tests confirmed that Sydney’s baby was Winthrop’s. The DA charged him with attempted murder but let his father’s high-priced attorneys plead the charge down to aggravated assault. They didn’t bother pursuing additional charges against him when none of his other victims came forward. Bonita filed a civil case against the Winthrop family and helped negotiate a million-dollar settlement for Sydney and her child, one that ensured that the baby’s father would never contact her or the child.

And ten months after Sydney Langstrom first walked into my office, I tore open a square envelope bearing a St. Louis postmark but no return address. Inside was a generic card with an artist’s rendering of the St. Louis Arch on the front. I opened the card and a wallet-sized photograph of Sydney holding a months-old baby boy fell onto my desktop. Sydney’s left eye no longer stared straight ahead, but the baby appeared healthy. Inside the card, she had written, “Little Morris and I are doing fine.”

I put the photo into the card, put the card into the envelope, and put the envelope into my desk. Then I went downstairs and found Alice tattooing the face of a Siamese cat onto Drew Templeton’s left forearm.

I asked about Jessie and Tipsy and learned they were living in San Marcos.

Michael Bracken ( is the Edgar Award and Shamus Award nominated, Derringer-winning author of more than 1,200 short stories, including crime fiction published in The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, Tough, and many other publications. Additionally, Bracken is the editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and several anthologies, including the Anthony Award-nominated The Eyes of Texas. He lives, writes, and edits in Texas.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Mine, fiction by Eleanor Keisman

A fragrant breeze drifted over me just as the pregnant woman passed by. I like to imagine it was her I was smelling. It surprised me how nice it was, like lilac scented soap. I always thought women who were that pregnant smelled gross, like swollen, sweaty flesh. When I thought of pregnancy, I thought of gas and leaky nipples, of a body oozing with double the fluids as it could handle. But the breeze around this woman smelled fresh and taught, much like the fit and hairless legs that carried her. Her hair was sandy blonde, straight, without tangles, fly-aways or frizz, and tied in a low ponytail. She seemed peaceful, like a body that had never cried out in existential agony before. Like someone that had never tasted their own blood in a fit of rage.

I was carrying a bag of groceries: salty things that burned my mouth, sweet things that sent my head spinning but ached in my stomach, crunchy things that felt good when I was angry and filled my ears with sound, soft things for when I wanted to sink my teeth into something, frozen things to stuff my freezer with, pretending I had a family to feed, bitter things that snapped me back to reality, and alcohol, for when I couldn’t bear to feel it anymore. A bag filled with calories that I didn’t want yet couldn’t stop gorging on. And though the frozen peas were melting, and I was only minutes away from my house, I backtracked: The scent of her spun me on my heels.

We were on a cul-de-sac, lined with houses, little and pastel colored and identical, as if made of ticky-tacky, like the song says. How many doctors and business executives lived in them? And how many lawyers? And how many dishonest ones, like mine? I hated the sight of it and had only agreed to move here in the first place because my husband had promised it would be temporary. It was near to the law firm, he said. It was affordable, he said, and would give us a chance to save money to move someplace not so suburban. He coerced me into giving up my financial independence and said it was teamwork.

And then it wasn’t teamwork. Then he had an affair, took the car, and never came home again, while I had a miscarriage and had to stay home every day. He called me a burden, said our marriage was a sham from the start, and turned himself into a hero for the charity of continuing to pay the bills, which, as he put it, I could never pay for myself. Now, isolated in the suburbs, the tepid puddle of my melted pride stagnating in the July heat, it turned out he was right.

The heat from the pavement rose through the soles of my shoes, baking my legs from the inside out. Still, I followed the pregnant woman, watching her cotton shorts swish and fan her with every step. She walked with a man of similar height, of similar skin color, and hair color. Their gait was synchronized, and they reached out their hands to one another at the same time, linking pinkies and swinging with ease.

And then the man laughed.

The woman had said something. He tipped his head slightly back and let out a ha-HA! It was almost a question, that second ha. The first, an unstoppable ejaculation – perhaps much like the moment that got them here in the first place – but the second ha had something fearful in it. As if her power terrified him and he sent out a call to those in his periphery to ask: Am I still a man if she has this control over me? May I still be the ultimate owner of this reality if I allow her half of it?

The HA lingered there in the air, echoing over his head, and then in my head. It started faint and then became high-pitched, glinting in my brain like a knife’s edge. A sound like that has a way of opening time sideways, extending within itself. Even in the linear space of a second, it held a depth that went on forever. It wasn’t even a human voice anymore. It raised itself above and beyond the tone of a question and pounded and screeched like a siren, causing my frustration to build. It felt like opening the door to my own house and having an alarm go off that I didn’t know the code for.

Or maybe there was no question. Maybe he just thought she was funny. Or maybe she hadn’t said anything at all, and he laughed at something he thought of himself, acting as both actor and audience. My husband laughed that way, and I used to get such a thrill every time I made it happen. But he was only using my humor to demonstrate how clever he was. Because who else would ever get my obscure references?

She didn’t do anything when he laughed, and the breeze felt once again hot and oppressive, the dwindling lilac scene was replaced with a faint odor of raw sewage. My swollen legs ached to turn me around back toward home, back to the airconditioned interior which would remain that way so long as he kept paying the bills, from wherever he was and whomever he was with. There were no phone calls or emails, divorce papers went unsigned. Me and my body rotted together in climate-controlled boredom, and no one laughed at my jokes anymore. I was pure passive receptivity, significant only in the requirements he felt were needed to keep me alive.

I’d been following the couple, trying to look inconspicuous, but when I focused back on the woman, I noticed that her hair was shorter. But her hair wasn’t shorter. It was him, with his big mitt-like hand, rubbing the back of her neck. He was slathering her with her own sweat, carelessly tangling her silky hair. I hadn’t seen her sweating before, and based on how she smelled, I couldn’t imagine it. But I was sweating, and because of that, I knew that she was too. I felt his hand on her neck as though it were my own. I felt his fingers, feigning concern, the palms of his hands, giving a touch that could be mistaken for security. They were firm and loving if you didn’t question why they lingered a little longer and held on a little stronger than they ought to.

The back of my neck felt suffocated, smothered in a gluey coating, and no fresh air could reach me.

The smell of rot punched me in the face.

There was an icy, aching sensation in my hip as the frozen peas I’d bought melted. Cold water dripped down my legs, lukewarm by the time it reached my feet. The cake I’d bought to binge on was soggy by now, and the potato chips were crushed. My pace had slowed, but the couple never left my sight. I had to find out if he was laughing at her or with her, if his hands meant to cradle her or control her. A block ahead of me, I saw them turn up the pathway to a light blue house and go inside. They closed the door on their little box. A few moments later, an electric sound clicked, and the house hummed.

After an hour loitering in a zigzag pattern up and down their block, my groceries hung limp and warm at my side, and I decided to go inside. The door was unlocked and the airconditioned breeze washed over me like absolution the moment I walked in. I set my bag down in the entrance and stepped gently. It was like walking into someone else’s dream. The parquet flooring led into a living room with a dark wood coffee table, two grey armchairs, and a light blue sofa with beige pillows. And on that sofa, the lilac-scented woman with the sandy-blonde hair and the man with the big hands and the loud laugh, napped together.

The man’s hair had looked sandy brown, but up close it appeared darker. It was curly, lighthearted in the way it sprung across his forehead. He was curled toward her, but only gently so, making space for her belly, and for her breath. Up until this point, I’d known him only from the back and from his piercing HA of laughter, but asleep on this blue-sky sofa, he looked like something from a magazine. He looked gentle in a way that could only be staged. Men like that didn’t really exist, anyway, none that wanted me.

What sort of a person does a woman have to be to find a man like that? I wanted to know, to know her, to know how she got to be her. To know everything about her, inside and out. I needed to get inside and understand where her lilac scent came from, how it was possible to be human – ugly, wrinkled, greedy, weak, reeking with the intrinsic odor of fluids and cells – and still attract something that had love in it. She had to be made of some other stuff than I was.

I sat down on the floor, right next to her mouth, and sniffed her breath. She was so perfect, that there was none. It wasn’t bad smelling, or sweet smelling, or warm or cold. It just wasn’t there, as though she were a doll. I put my hand over his open mouth, and also felt nothing. They were perfect. Nothing to argue with, dislike, or offend. I put my mouth to hers and inhaled. I wanted to feed off her like a baby bird. I wanted to be the baby in her belly. I wanted her to be my mommy and teach me how to do it all again, only this time, better.

Neither of them moved. I inhaled until I was filled with the saltiness of her insides. They made me dizzy. I lifted her shirt and tried to crawl inside, but it wasn’t the warmth I was seeking. I wanted her to hold me, to make me a part of her so I could know, really know what she was and how I could be that too. I clawed at her belly, and she rocked back and forth from the weight of me. There was no movement from either of them, as though they were not only asleep, but paused in time, and waiting for me to join their lives. As though I were the baby they were waiting for.

I clawed, like a child trying to get attention. I pawed at her arms and linked my fingers through hers. I hugged her. I held her palms open to see if the secret to her was hidden there. I licked them, and then, I bit. First, I ate her fingers, long and gentle, and then once I got her stomach open, using a letter opener on the coffee table, I ate the baby’s fingers. Adorable fingers of promise, fingers made by love, fingers, not only that I was denied, but that no one wanted from me anyway. But these, I could have. I could swallow them and walk around with them inside me in defiance of my own undesirability.

Then I kissed his mouth to understand what she felt when she kissed him. I wanted to know what kindness felt like in flesh. I sucked and chewed on them and pressed myself against them with such force that it hurt my teeth. His lips were soft, and they made me wet, so I unbuttoned his pants and took off mine, sat on his lap, and rocked until I came. And then I ate them, and they were soft and crunchy at the same time. Then I ate his penis so it would always be with me.

I reached up into her chest, carved out her heart, and ate it, tears and blood running down my face and chest. She was what I wanted to be, and now I’d have her inside me. Both of them, all mine. I fell asleep on top of him, my head on his chest, my arm cradling her head, fingers tangled in her hair.

is an American writer living in Vienna, Austria. She holds a bachelor’s in Liberal Arts, an MBA, and is currently an MFA candidate working on her first novel. Her work has appeared in Litro Magazine, 21-MAGAZINE, and The Bangalore Review. When she's not developing her own writing, she's working on a series of translations of Rainier Maria Rilke from the original German to English. 

Monday, April 1, 2024

Home to Roost, fiction by Zakariah Johnson

So, where’s Morrie keep his money?” I asked his new wife, casual-like, as I rolled off her sweaty, post-coital body to grab the cigarettes on the motel night-stand. It was late summer, the AC barely worked, and the sheets hadn’t been fresh to start with.

I dunno. He doesn’t, like, share that stuff with me?” McKenzie said, then added, “But I know he doesn’t pay taxes on most of it. I think he told me that to make himself look smart?”

McKenzie seemed like she’d have to concentrate to remember her middle name, but she’d paid enough attention to know Morrie’s first wife got two million dollars when he traded her in on a younger model. She had to know something useful.

Does he keep offshore accounts?” I asked.

How should I know?” she said. She plucked the burning cigarette from my lips with a moist hand and dragged deep.

Could you find out?”

I guess? I don’t know how hedgerow managers get, like, paid and all. I just like spending it!” She giggled, crinkling her nose in a way that was less attractive each time you saw it.

Ask him,” I said and reclaimed my cigarette. “How hard could it be?”

Ooh! I don’t know, Peter.” She giggled at the double-entendre of my name and crinkled her damn nose again. “How hard could it be?”

The afternoon turned into a long slog, but a man’s gotta do who a man’s gotta do.


Truth is, it felt good fucking Morrie’s wife. It felt like getting my due.

Morrie and I had been inseparable in elementary school, played Little League together and all that. Weekends, we’d trot through the woods to find owl pellets or red efts, the baby salamanders said to be the most common animals in the state but that no one ever sees. I wanted to be an ornithologist; Morrie wanted to save the whales. They were good dreams while they lasted, but class—economic class, not the kind in school—got in the way.

Sophomore year in high school we were lab partners in honors biology, our last real time together. I pulled an A but Morrie got an A-, not that anyone but him kept score. He made me pay a hundred times for outdoing him. The day we got our grades back he asked me in front of the other rich kids why I hadn’t signed up for a summer program he knew damn well I couldn’t afford. He spent that summer on a UNH research vessel in the Gulf of Maine, but something changed after that. When he got back, it was goodbye whales, hello finance and statistics. And goodbye to me. At graduation, the only thing that made his valedictorian speech tolerable was knowing he’d leave forever the next day. Or so we’d thought.

So, it was a topic of interest when JoAnne Gilder, our local real-estate queen, spilled the beans about her latest client over pitchers of Miller Lite at Baron’s.

It’s the golden boy,” she sneered. “Morrie bleeping DeRoche. He calls me out of the blue like we’re still on yearbook committee. Says I’m the first one he thought of, too. Soooo flattering.”

What’s that shrimp doing back here?” her husband, Tom, asked, gently rubbing her neck to calm her down. “He getting a summer place?”

No,” JoAnne said, “He says he’s ‘retiring’ here. Says he ‘Came back, to give back,’ whatever that means.” She picked up her ten-ounce mug and drained it. When she banged it down, her face had a hard look “The little shit came back to rub our noses in it is what.”

He’s retiring at thirty-eight?” I snapped.

She shrugged. “I guess he did good out there. His wife’s hot enough. Tightest clothes I ever seen. Don’t know how she moves in them.”

Morrie married a babe?” Tom snorted. “Now we know he struck it rich.”

JoAnne punched him in the arm, but he wasn’t wrong.


Back to the wife.

I’d heard the name “McKenzie” shouted at little girls on playgrounds, but before Morrie’s wife, I’d never met a grown-up called that, if grown-up she was. I assumed she was of legal age for marriage, but she could’ve sat in any high-school classroom and not raised suspicion.

Morrie had been back in town a month when he left a voice message on my cell. He said he just knew I had to be the best landscaper in town and he had a few little projects to throw my way if I needed work. I knew any job from Morrie would be his attempt to turn me into his houseboy, but work had, in fact, been a little slow. Work’s always slow in Ossipee, New Hampshire. A few days later, I texted him that I’d stop by when I had time. I had no other work lined up, but I still waited a week before I drove to the address he’d given.

When I pulled into their circular driveway, McKenzie was out front, bent over at the waist to pour water from a sprinkling-can over a dried-up patch of Canadian bunchberry. JoAnne hadn’t been wrong: the trophy wife’s yoga pants looked painted on, and their abstract pattern obscured neither curve nor cranny. I let my truck rumble at idle, but she pretended not to hear it. She didn’t turn around or straighten up, just kept bobbing up and down with her ass pointed my direction as she dabbed water over the dead groundcover. When I’d seen enough, I got out of the cab and slammed the door hard.

Hey,” I said.

She cocked her head over her shoulder to smile at me without straightening up, and then she slowly unbent at the hips. She stretched all the way up and practically touched her elbows behind her back while looking me in the eye.

You must be Morrie’s wife?”

Yeah. I’m McKenzie. You’re Peter?”

That’s what the truck says. You’ve got good balance.”

Yoga does that for you.”

So, is Morrie around?”

No, he left early. For Boston? He probably won’t be back until late.”

He told me you’ve got a bush that needs trimming. Want to show it to me?”

Yeah, I was being an asshole and trying to piss her off, but, as with all things Morrie, I couldn’t help myself. I expected her to tell me off, but instead, she did a little laugh and crinkled her nose (it was cute the first time I saw it).

He told you that, huh? Yeah, come have a look out back...”

Given my history with Morrie, I didn’t feel a single twinge of guilt over what happened next. Later that afternoon, I did some actual yardwork and double-billed him for my time.


The thing about guys like Morrie is that when they start banging hot women half their age, they get so high on their own testosterone they forget she’s only after their money. And unlike a set of perfect abs (like mine), money can flow from man to man with remarkable speed. Morrie should have looked in the mirror more, but he was too enamored to look at anything but McKenzie’s ass. Sliding into her twisted body from angles I could never have invented (she was right about yoga—great for balance), I understood how even a smart guy like Morrie could get distracted by a partner with such limited conversation.

In the privacy of their home, McKenzie proved even less inhibited than in the motels. I was surprised their bed’s giant headboard hadn’t already knocked a hole in the bedroom wall, but I guess her sessions with Morrie were more subdued.

A week after the motel meet-up, we clutched hands and gasped breathlessly with our heads on opposite ends of their marital bed as she panted out the magic phrase: “I found the account numbers.”

I tried to hide it, but when she squeezed my hand, I knew she’d felt the twinge of excitement shoot through me at her words. “And the passwords?” I asked.

Yeah,” she said. “I got them all. We’re almost free, Peter.” When she spoke again, there was a note of concern in her voice that worried me. “You will go through with it, right?”

I’ll stick to the plan.” Silence reigned in the bed. “McKenzie?”


Why are you doing this? Robbing Morrie? You’ve already got everything.”

A low and husky laugh escaped from deep in her throat. It was a sound she hadn’t made before, and it put the hairs on my neck on end. I raised up on my elbows to see her, but her tone switched back to baby talk: “Morrie was married when I met him, but he screwed me on the couch in the office only two months after I’d come to work for him. He’d have fucked me sooner if I’d let him. He left his wife for me, but only because I was first in line. So, yeah, I’ve got all this,” she whirled an arm to indicate the bedroom, “but only on loan until his next lay turns up and takes it away.”

After that, I finally believed in our partnership. Never trust a wolf that tells you she isn’t hungry. And never turn your back on one that is.


The only flaw in my plan was that I had no idea how to pull it off.

I’m not a complete fool about money—I run a small business after all—but the intricacies of international finance might as well be astrophysics. McKenzie had the account numbers and passwords, I had the muscle, but we still needed somebody with banking bona fides to do the transfers. Our third partner was McKenzie’s pick.

Charis? Morrie’s ex? That’s crazy,” I said, laughing at her naiveté.

We worked together at my old firm,” McKenzie said. “She’s good.”

You mean at Morrie’s old firm. Won’t she know who you are?”

Of course, she knows—that’s why she’ll help us. Think about it. You told me how Morrie treated you in high school. Do you know anybody who wouldn’t want to get back at him? Especially her?”

Doesn’t she hate you for taking her husband?”

Hardly. Charis got two million bucks, the house, and no-ass Morrie out of her life. She’s probably grateful.”

I had my doubts, but the yoga-inspired sex helped bring me around. I agreed to drive into Boston to sell Charis on the deal.

It’s got to happen by the first of next month,” McKenzie added. “He’s moving all his money into a single account to prep for some deal. The bank in Panama won’t expect the cash to sit there for more than a day, and they won’t care where it’s going.”

You seem to have learned a lot about finance.”

I’m not as dumb as you think.”

Correction—you’re not as dumb as Morrie thinks. I never called you dumb.” Which was technically true; I’d never actually said it. Besides, she had me wondering.

Come here, Big Peter!” she cooed. My wondering ceased.


McKenzie made the call, and her intuition proved correct. The ex-wife agreed to at least listen to our pitch. I drove down alone to Newton, a wealthy suburb west of Boston, to work out the details. I didn’t want any neighborhood busybodies to remember my truck, which has my company name on the side, so I rode down on my motorcycle and showed up at Charis’s mansion in black leather chaps. I caught my reflection in the glass door when I rang the bell, and I knew no male on that street would dare challenge me.

She answered the door wearing white slacks and a matching sweater. No darkened roots betrayed her blond hair, which had to be dyed but could pass for natural.

Peter?” she asked. “I’m Charis. Come in.” A hint of perfume lingered in her wake as I followed her into the house. She was twice McKenzie’s age, but she wore it better and always would. McKenzie’s ample bloom would be a spent force by thirty; Charis’s type was built to last.

She led me into an all-white living room where she picked up a glass of golden wine she’d already been drinking. A large glass.

Can I get you a beer?”

Sure,” I said. “You’re not what I expected.”

Neither are you,” she said. I followed her into the all-white kitchen that mirrored her outfit. The house’s whole interior seemed white, as cold and sterile as a walk-in freezer. Frigid. “What did McKenzie tell you about me?” she asked.

Only that Morrie dumped you for her, so you’re mad enough to help us bankrupt him.”

She laughed. “That little bitch. What gall.” She saw the look on my face. “Don’t worry. She’s not wrong. I’m just surprised—impressed, I guess—she had the guts to call me. Or maybe the stupidity?”

She’s not the brightest,” I said. She handed me cold beer from the fridge—some canned domestic crap she must have figured a landscaper would like. “How about we look at the files?”

After she’d looked at the paperwork I’d brought, Charis agreed the money wouldn’t be hard to siphon away once Morrie had it in the new account—especially not with the information McKenzie had filched.

But if he gets loose before we’re done, he’ll not only take back the money, he’ll be able to prove we stole it. There’s no way around that. You’ll need to handle him permanently.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “I just wanted…what are you suggesting?”

If we get caught, it means prison. You hate him, right?”

Yeah, but…Jesus. I just want him to know it was me that took his money. I don’t want to kill him.”

Peter, do you trust McKenzie?” she asked. She raised the goblet to her lips and fixed me with her gray eyes over the rim as she drank. My silence answered her question. I hadn’t worried about trust until then. McKenzie seemed too dumb to have a plan. But then again, McKenzie had bested the woman in front me, both in love and money.

No,” I said. “Of course I don’t trust her.”

Then is there any reason to split Morrie’s money three ways instead of two?” She held out her goblet toward me and I clinked it with my can. “Why don’t you take those leathers off?” What happened next seemed inevitable.

I’d heard about rich women like her—ivory tower ice queens on the make for blue-collar guys. They think working men have more frustrations to work out in bed or something. Maybe we do, but if so, Charis had some deep frustrations of her own to work out (she wasn’t so icy after all.) Beyond that though, it felt good running up the score on Morrie: first McKenzie, then Charis. Who knew who’d be next?

The next time, when I drove down to see her, I didn’t tell McKenzie. Charis had convinced me, and with similar methods, but thankfully without any nose crinkling.

You will kill him?” Charis asked as I lay sweaty and spent in another bed Morrie had once called his own.

That’s the plan.”

Really? McKenzie seems to think you’re a big softie,” she said. “You’re screwing her, too, right?”


She gave a crisp laugh, pinned my shoulders to the mattress and nipped my ear. “Relax. I don’t give the slightest, solitary little shit. Just do your part, OK?”

Yeah, sure. I will.”

Good…Have you ever been to Rio?”


The first of October drew near, and then it was showtime. McKenzie would fly home to see her parents for the weekend to establish her alibi. Then I’d snatch Morrie, force him to sign the paperwork, do what needed to be done, and then rush to Boston so Charis could transfer his funds into a shell company she’d set up in the Cayman Islands. She was convinced Morrie had hidden millions from her when they divorced, and, judging by what I could understand from the documents, she was right. Even if Charis didn’t give me a fair split (and why would she?), I’d be on a plane to South America before McKenzie discovered her share was missing. Moving to Rio with both Morrie’s millions and his ex-wife meant leaving Ossipee, New Hampshire, behind forever but I’d dry my tears. From the brochures Charis had shown me, Brazil seemed like a great place to take up birdwatching again.


Morrie’s house stood alone at the end of his private road. The side door was unlocked like McKenzie had promised, and I slipped in without a sound. She’d assured me they didn’t own any guns, but I still brought my own—a long-barreled .44 Magnum my dad had left me. I decided to keep it holstered under my arm until it was time for…to be honest, I wasn’t sure for what. Charis and McKenzie both expected me to leave Morrie at the bottom of a nearby pond, but I had other plans: plans to let him know I’d kicked his ass, screwed both his wives, and taken his last dime. I wasn’t going to waste a revenge like that by killing him. At least not right away.

Morrie was alone in the basement playing with his gigantic model train-set when I found him. He was even wearing an engineer’s cap that made him look like a faded version of the kid I’d played baseball with three decades earlier.

Whoa!” he blurted out as I stepped into view, but then he smiled. “Holy crap, Pete. You scared me to death. How’s it going?”

We’re going to take a little ride, Morrie.”


Come on.” I gripped his spindly arm in my calloused hand. I didn’t even have to hit him, just turn him around, duct-tape his hands, and lead him outside to my truck. I’d suggested that we make him sign the papers then and there, but Charis had insisted he’d crack faster in an unfamiliar setting. In line with her plan, I drove him to my family’s old hunting cabin near the border with Maine and tied him to a chair. I got the woodstove going, then threw the transfer papers down in front of him.

I guess you aren’t so smart after all, are you, Morrie? Sign these.”

How can I?”

Oh. Right.” I un-taped his right arm and ordered him again. He leafed through the pages, signing and initialing as he went.

Pete, this is nonsense. I could undo all of these signatures with a phone call. You want me to sign, I’ll sign, but it won’t do you any good.”

You know what, Morrie?”


I hate it when people call me Pete.”

But I’ve always called you Pete.”

Exactly.” I grinned as he stared at me. “I guess you didn’t think it would turn out like this when you called me to be your yard boy? Didn’t see this happening when you decided to rub my nose in your money one more time?”

What? No, you’ve got it all wrong. JoAnne Gilder asked me to call you. When I bought my house, she told me you’d been hard up and needed work. You and I are friends, man! We’ve always been friends, right? That’s what friends do!”

Friends? Like the time you tried to get me to sign up for the SATs? Bringing it up in front of the whole class? Got a good chuckle out of that, didn’t you?”

But you’d have aced it! I was looking out for you. You could have gone to any college you wanted. You know more about biology than—”

Shut up!” I said and tuned out his lies. It was my turn now. “You know what the best part was? Every time I visited your house when you were out of town, I got to charge you extra for my services!”

What do you mean?”

You’ve been paying me to split your wife, you stupid cuck!” His face drained of color. “I guess that makes up for Jeana in junior year, huh? Huh?”

Jeana? Who’s…you liked Jeana?” he said. He looked at his feet and sagged his shoulders. “You’ve hated me this whole time, haven’t you?”

Hell yes, I hate you! Everyone hates you, Morrie! McKenzie. Charis. Tom. JoAnne. Probably everyone you’ve ever met.”

How do you know about Charis?”

Hey, dummy, who do you think drew up the papers for you to sign?”

He made to grab for the stack, probably to rip it in two, but I snatched them out of his reach. That’s when he broke. He sat there taped to the chair and poured out his heart. I collapsed into the other chair in laughter as he told me how he’d had too much to drink at an office party and ended up sleeping with McKenzie while his wife was at a conference. Told me how he’d hoped it was a one-time mistake but then thought he had to marry her when McKenzie said she was pregnant.

By the time she miscarried, it was too late to back out,” he said.

Oh my God!” I heard myself cackle but couldn’t stop. “You fell for that? A smart guy like you?” I banged the table and held my sides in laughter until I heard his sobs. I looked up and saw tears streaking his face. With his hair poking out from under his engineer’s cap, he looked like the little boy I’d climbed trees with back in elementary school. That was when I realized I couldn’t kill him—to win was enough. To hell with crinkle-nosed McKenzie, ice-queen Charis, and the money as well. Whatever happened, I’d already gotten what I needed: to hear Morrie beg, to see him cry, to know he knew I was the better man.

Morrie was catatonic as I re-taped his right arm to the chair. “Don’t worry. You’ll just have to stay here a couple days until—”

The door behind me creaked and I spun around to see McKenzie walk in.

How’d you find this place?”

I followed you,” she said. “Did he sign? Let me see.”

I handed her the documents and she flipped through them as Morrie pleaded with her. “McKenzie, I was just trying to do right by you; can’t we—”

Paperwork seems in order,” she said.

You understand those?” I asked.

Well, duh, I was his secretary. What did you think I did?” She turned toward the pitiful man in the chair and said, “Goodbye, Morrie.” She pulled a chromed-up little semi-automatic from her coat pocket and shot him twice before I could move.

No!” I shouted and lunged for her, my revolver too big and long to draw in time to stop anything. She pivoted and shot me in the arm, then the chest. I staggered against the counter and slid to the floor. I saw Morrie’s head was tilted back and blood covered his shirt.

McKenzie tossed the papers onto the table and stood over me with her pistol leveled at my face. She crinkled her nose once more as she spoke. “Well, Peter, it’s been fun, but not that fun. Charis and I both knew you wouldn’t have the guts to follow through.” I started to beg, not to make her stop but to cover the sound of Charis’s feet as she stepped through the open doorway.

I flinched at the gunshot. Blood splattered my face and I wasn’t sure who’d fired until I saw the dark wet spreading over McKenzie’s chest. Her arm lowered and dropped the gun as she stumbled around to face Charis, who shot her twice more. Blood splattered out McKenzie’s back as the bullets exited and then she fell across my legs.

I’d finally gotten the big gun out and Charis smirked as I struggled to raise it. We fired at the same time. Her 9 mm struck me in the stomach but I canoed her forehead with a single round from the .44 and her body hit the floor like ice off a roof.

The smells of shit, blood, and gun smoke mingled in the silent air. McKenzie lay face-up over my lap. In death, she no longer looked even pretty, her youthful vitality gone. I couldn’t feel my legs, but my stomach burned like a hot poker was stuck through it. I dropped my gun arm and leaned back. Each breath came harder than the last. I watched through the open door for what might have been minutes or hours as the setting sun cast its streaks of gold over the pond outside. As dusk fell, a long-eared owl called from somewhere among the flame-colored trees. Autumn is beautiful in the north country, and I realized my friend had come home because he loved it, as he loved us all.

Morrie, listen,” I said. “Listen to the owl.”

Zakariah Johnson plucks banjos and pens horror, thrillers, and crime fiction on the banks of the Piscataqua. He’s the author of the collection Egg on Her Face: Stories of Crime, Horror, and the Space in Between (2022) and the ’90s-nostalgia-driven, eco-horror mystery Mink: Skinning Time in Wisconsin (2023).