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.

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