Showing posts with label andrew welsh-huggins. Show all posts
Showing posts with label andrew welsh-huggins. Show all posts

Monday, October 3, 2022

Deliverables, fiction by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Carruthers walked carefully down the icy steps, wary of a fall, and tried to push the man’s dismissal out of his mind. As cruel and mocking as they came. And did he really need to slam the door so hard? Brooding, it wasn’t until he crossed the street and eyed the next block of houses that he realized the mistake that likely instigated the encounter. At some point that evening, in the dark as the snow came down, he had unknowingly crossed the line from Grandview—the city of Columbus neighborhood—into Grandview Heights, the stand-alone village. The transition indistinguishable by the naked eye—the same early 20th century Dutch Colonials and Cape Cods and cottages lined avenues in both places. On paper, though, forget it. House values doubled or tripled once inside the urban village limits. Good luck finding anything under three-hundred-fifty thou these days, minimum. And with those house values came a certain expectation, chief among them: early evening was not a time for the community’s good burghers to be bothered by cable salesmen. Especially in the winter. And especially this winter.

        Carruthers adjusted his blue medical mask, uncomfortably damp from the snow, and considered his options. Seven-thirty. Four sign-ups short of today’s quota, and he was already in the hole by three from the day before. The pickings slim from this point on unless he turned around, but he’d already covered most of the city neighborhood streets behind him. He needed to move to another part of town, but this late in the evening that would put him knocking on doors after eight. That wasn’t going to fly no matter how poor or wealthy the area. He sighed and consigned himself to his fate. He’d try one more block, despite his low expectations. What else was he supposed to do, at his age, in this economy, with everything going on?

        A swift dismissal at the next door. No one home at the following house. A pitying glance from the woman at the house after that, but not pitying enough to entertain his offer to switch cable services, regardless how fast the broadband he offered was, or how many channels were available. One more door, Carruthers told himself, back on the sidewalk. Tomorrow would be another—

        “Excuse me?”

        He glanced to his left. An SUV paused in the street, the passenger side window rolled down, wipers squee-squeeging against the snow. The driver leaned toward him.

        “Excuse me?” she repeated.

        Carruthers looked up and down the sidewalk out of force of habit, and then took a step toward the car.


        The woman driver, wearing a floral print mask, gestured wordlessly at him to come closer. A moment later she pulled the mask down briefly, showing her face. Carruthers’ eyes widened in surprise. The look of recognition flustered the woman, and for a moment, she didn’t or couldn’t speak.

        At last she said, “I’m sorry about my husband, back there. The way he spoke to you. That wasn’t necessary. Particularly on a night like this.”

        The wife of the man who dressed him down and then slammed the door in his face.

        “It’s all right. I’m used to it. It’s an intrusion, I know.”

        “It’s not all right. Not in the least—”

        A car approached and stopped behind the woman’s SUV, the sideways falling snow illuminated in its light beams. The woman shook her head in frustration and pulled ahead, then over, banking the vehicle against the curb. Carruthers, not certain what else to do, took a few steps forward to meet her.

        “I brought you some coffee,” the woman said abruptly, raising a cup toward him. “You must be freezing out here.”

        “You didn’t have to do that.”

        “Please take it.” She reached the cup toward the window. As she did, a sudden gust kicked a curtain of snow into his eyes that felt much closer to sleet.

        “What a night,” the woman said. He heard the click of unlocking doors. “Come in out of this. Just for a second.”

        Carruthers hesitated. He still had the final house he had committed to trying, and it wasn’t getting any earlier. But the snow was also getting worse, stinging him where the mask left unprotected skin. And the smell of the coffee was beckoning...

        He opened the door and slid inside. The woman raised the passenger window, shutting out the elements. The car was warm, the heater blasting, and smelled invitingly of leather and the woman’s perfume. Even his seat was warm, he realized.

        “Thank you,” he said gratefully, taking the Stauf’s cup. He raised his mask just enough for a sip.

        “It’s the least I could do.”

        “It’s bad out there,” he said, not sure what else to say.

        “Can I drive you someplace? Is your car near?”

        “Just around the corner. There’s really no need. It’s just nice to warm up for a second.”

        “I’m sorry again about my husband.” She stared straight ahead. Carruthers took another sip of coffee and studied her face, illuminated by the streetlamp a few yards down. Early forties, he guessed, to judge by the quick glimpse he got of her over her husband’s shoulder at her house and the peek she gave him removing the mask just now. Pretty features but watching life through sad and tired eyes. Blonde hair pulled back by a scarf. A rock on her ring finger that glinted in the dark as she inched her hands up the steering wheel. He peered as closely at the right side of her face as possible without drawing attention to himself. Trying to decide if he was imagining things. He didn’t think so.

        “It’s really all right.”

        “He doesn’t understand how bad things have gotten for people.”

        “It’s a difficult time,” Carruthers agreed, again not sure what to say. He was already thinking about the politest exit line to return to the street.

        “Someone like you, for example.”


        “I don’t mean to pry ...”

        Carruthers sat quietly.

        “But is this not what you really do?”

        “What do you mean?”

        She gave a little shake of her head. Carruthers could tell she was embarrassed. He was embarrassed too because he knew what she meant.

        “It’s just, the way the economy’s been,” she said quickly. “So many people out of work. I only wondered if—”

        He spared her further agony. “I’m not a career cable salesman, if that’s what you mean,” he said, keeping his tone light.

        “It’s none of my business, I know. I just feel so bad. I’m Christy, by the way.”

        He paused and then responded by reciting a name for himself.

        “What kind of work were you in, if I may ask?”

        Carruthers hesitated for just a moment.

        “Deliverables,” he said.

        Christy sighed.


        “Nothing. It’s just that that’s my husband’s field as well.”

        “What does he do?”

        “He sources polypropylene,” she said, stretching out the syllables as if pronouncing a foreign dignitary’s name. “For takeout food containers. He’s on the numbers side of things. Not very exciting, except that business is booming, as you might expect.” She stopped herself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

        “Don’t worry. Deliverables isn’t supposed to be exciting. It’s a means to an end.” He snuck another glance at her face half hidden in the shadows.

        “He thinks it’s exciting.”

        “Maybe it is for him.”


        She grew quiet. Carruthers took another sip of coffee. It was the best coffee he had had in a while. Since right around the time his income dried up between the first and second wave of the sickness. He realized with sudden clarity that he did not want to leave the warmth of the SUV and the balm of the coffee for another cold, fruitless walk up a set of porch steps. He looked at her again.

        “May I ask you something, Christy?”

        “Of course.”

        He studied the bruise on her right cheek. “How often does he hit you like that? Your husband, I mean.”

        She froze as if Carruthers himself had just raised his fist. After a second or two her eyes brightened, and she choked back a sob.

        “I’m sorry,” he said. “That was completely inappropriate.”

        She shook her head wordlessly, hand drifting to her cheek. “No,” she gasped. “It’s not that.”

        He waited.

        “It’s just that I didn’t think it was so obvious.”

        They sat in silence for nearly a minute as the heater pushed warm air into their faces, gusts of wind whipped the snow sideways, and thin rivulets of melting precipitation ran down the windshield.

        Carruthers broke the silence. “Is there anything I can do?”

        Christy shook her head.

        “Is it, you know, possible for you to leave?”

        “No,” she whispered. When he didn’t respond, she said, “It’s complicated. I’m the second wife. There’s a prenup. Oh God. I shouldn’t be telling you this. I’m so sorry. I just wanted to do something nice for you, after what he said. I didn’t mean to burden you.”

        “It’s not a burden.”

        “Don’t be ridiculous.”

        Half a minute passed. Each took a sip of coffee.

        “I should go,” Carruthers said.

        She nodded.

        Neither of them moved.

        Nine months and three days, in fact, since he could afford to buy such good coffee.



        “May I ask one other thing?”

        “Sure.” She laughed with the hopelessness of a woman staring at a foreclosure notice in her inbox. “Anything.”

        “Could I tell you about the job I had before everything happened?”

        “Of course,” she said, her eyes bright again, but now seemingly with relief that the conversation was moving away from her.

        So he did.

        Carruthers was not surprised to learn that Christy’s husband still went into the office most days. He couldn’t stand working at home, she told him, and while not a sickness doubter, he was skeptical of the conventional wisdom on transmission. Carruthers could have managed regardless, but the husband’s preference made things a little easier. His office was in the Arena District, one of the new brick-and-glass developments within walking distance of the hockey arena, Clippers stadium, and the new Crew field. The office parking garage sat a block down. It took a couple of days to work out the best sightline but eventually Carruthers found it atop the old municipal power plant off Hocking. He went back and forth but decided on a Tuesday morning, his preferred day, since the few brave souls now returning to the office after months at home were back in the rhythm of the work week by then and focused on the day ahead. After a week of reconnaissance, he figured he was looking at somewhere between 8:15 and 8:18.

        Not bad, he thought that following Tuesday morning. 8:17 a.m. The benefits of punctuality. He settled in and leaned forward, letting the scope cup his right eye. He reached for the trigger but took his time, dissipating the rustiness that had set in over the past several months. It had been an unusually long respite; even in 2008 and 2009 jobs found him, if a bit sporadically. He was accustomed to ebbs and flows, but the sickness threw those models out the window. He paused, took a breath, released it, and squeezed off four shots in succession.

        The first evaporated a brick at the corner of the parking garage just above the sign with the daily parking rates. The second eviscerated the rear driver’s side tire of a car in line for the garage. The third shattered the rear driver’s side passenger window of the next car up, sending a shower of glass into an empty child’s car seat. The last shot, directed at the front window of a black Lincoln Navigator waiting for the garage gate to rise, removed most of Christy’s husband’s head.

        These things took time, of course. The speed with which ones and zeroes traveled through cyberspace when money was involved didn’t apply to every transaction. Especially this one. And especially with the various layered accounts the money needed to move in and out of. It was complicated: prenup, and all. But eventually Carruthers was paid, both the down payment and the final deposit. After all, he delivered his service without complications. Police were still looking in vain for the spree shooter who targeted several drivers, tragically killing one. Just to be safe, he kept the cable job until all the money arrived, paying closer attention to borders between neighborhoods. One week, he even met his sales quota. Despite that, his supervisor didn’t seem surprised when he turned in his notice.

        “It must be hard out there, someone your age,” the young woman said.

        “The days get long,” Carruthers said in agreement.

        It wasn’t that much money, was the thing. He had offered a discount rate to Christy, given the circumstances. With his obligations, his and his wife’s, maybe enough to last them six months. He would have to drum up new business in-between or look for another job. Maybe retail this time, he thought. Both Target and Walmart were hiring. He was filling out an online job application in early spring when his phone rang. Not his personal phone. The other phone.

        “2029,” Carruthers said, reciting the last four digits.

        No one spoke for a moment. Then he heard a woman’s voice.



        “I’m calling because ...”

        He waited.

        “My friend Christy gave me this number.”

        Carruthers did not say anything.

        “The thing is ... She said you might be able to help me with a problem.”

        Carruthers saved his work on the job application and shut down his browser. He examined the area code on the caller ID. Louisville, he was pretty sure. Not so far.

        “Go on,” he said.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins, an Associated Press reporter and freelance writer, is the author of the Andy Hayes private eye series, including the Shamus Award-nominated An Empty Grave, and the editor of Columbus Noir. His short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery MagazineMystery MagazineMystery Tribune, the 2021 Bouchercon anthology This Time For Sure, the collection Mickey Finn Vol. 1: 21st Century Noir, and other magazines and anthologies.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Looking for Katie Showalter, fiction by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

I was almost home, still cooling off from my run at Schiller Park, when the call came, my Tom Petty “Free Fallin’” ring tone interrupting the quiet Sunday morning. I didn’t recognize the number. I usually don’t.

“I’m looking for Mr. Andy Hayes?”

“You’ve got him.”

“My name’s Marie Showalter. I’m calling because … because my daughter is missing.” Voice fragile and small, as if she’d just finished crying—or hadn’t cried enough.

“I’m sorry to hear that. How long has she been gone?”

“At least two weeks. Two weeks since I’ve heard from her, anyway.”

“Where was she then?”

“In Columbus, as far as I know. That’s where you are, right?”

I told her that was correct and asked where she was calling from.

“Akron. It’s where we live—Katie and me. It’s just us.”

I paused on the brick-lined sidewalk in front of my house at 837 Mohawk, pressed my left foot against the locust tree that grows in the devil’s strip between the sidewalk and the street, and stretched my left calf.

“Have you reported this to the police?”

She told me she had, but she’d been informed that absent evidence of foul play, all they could do was input the information since Katie was an adult and had called and texted once or twice before radio silence set in.

“You take these kinds of cases, don’t you? You find people?”

“I do my best.”

“I don’t have a lot right now. But I’ll pay whatever you charge eventually. I promise.”

“We’ll work all that out. But one thing you should know.”

“Yes?” Voice even quieter now.

“Sometimes people who go missing do it for a reason. If I find Katie, all I can promise is to let you know she’s safe. I might not be able to bring her back to you, if that’s not what she wants.”

The line was silent for a few moments.

“I understand.”

Maybe she did. But it turned out that was the least of our problems.


I took down the details when we talked a few minutes later, after I showered and had breakfast and was in front of my computer. Katie Showalter was twenty, headstrong, and an addict, with a history of bad decisions starting early in high school, ranging from truancy to shoplifting to a couple low-level drug possession charges. Her father long out of the picture after her parents’ acrimonious divorce when she was eleven—the beginning of all the trouble, her mother said, unable to control her emotions. After Katie graduated from high school, an abusive older boyfriend sent her to the hospital with a hairline jaw fracture and she’d grown too fond of the painkillers she brought home from the ER. Soon after she ran away to Cleveland, returning in the middle of the night three weeks later, penniless, wearing the same clothes she left in. Chastened, she agreed to addiction treatment at a three-month bootcamp in the woods in southern Ohio that interspersed martial arts with tough love. Though it nearly bankrupted her mother, the experience was a positive one. Then, not two days back, Katie relapsed. A week later, after a shouting match with her mother over her refusal to look for work, she hitched a ride with a friend to Columbus. A couple text messages and calls followed over the next few weeks. And then nothing, including Katie’s disappearance from social media. Marie wasn’t sure but she thought her daughter had been sleeping in the open, at least at times, perhaps in a city park.

My spirits fell as her mother explained all this. A young woman like that, poor and vulnerable and addicted, had few options no matter where she landed, and the ones available to her didn’t bear thinking about. I asked Marie to email a picture along with Katie’s cell phone number and told her I’d do what I could. I tried not to overpromise. I wasn’t optimistic I could find Katie Showalter, but I wasn’t pessimistic either. It’s the condition she’d be in when I located her that had me worried.


Later that morning I hopped on my bike, rode to a copy shop on High, and printed out a stack of fliers with Katie’s photograph and name and my number beneath. From there I cut down Gay Street to the federal courthouse and picked up the bike trail. I rode north as far as Third and worked my way back, stopping at two different homeless encampments squeezed between the path and the river to see if anyone there knew anything. The granola bars and water bottles I’d tucked into my backpack smoothed over suspicions, but the bottom line was no one claimed to have seen Katie. I was riding toward downtown and thinking about taking the path south of the city center when I heard music in the distance. It came to me. The last day of the annual community festival in Goodale Park up by the Arena District. A free, three-day extravaganza each summer consisting of music, beer, food stalls, vendors selling jewelry and clothing—heavy on batik fabrics and tie dye—and most famously, topless women, the actual total being regularly exaggerated. The festival’s vibe was hippie heavy, even though most attendees would get up on Monday morning, don suits and ties or dresses and pumps, and trot off to corporate jobs around the city. Either way, it attracted a lot of young people, some of them more untethered to the world than others. It couldn’t hurt to check the crowds. I steered my bike in that direction, locked it in a rack near Buttles, and entered the fray.

An hour later, having been through the park twice, having talked to dozens of people sitting in pairs, trios, big groups or sometimes solo—and seeing not a single topless woman—I was no farther along than when I entered. Trudging toward my bike, I consigned myself to the next, darker step: checking the city’s westside streets where women with a history of abuse and addiction often ended up, selling the only thing they believed they had of value. I was unlocking my bike when I heard someone shouting. I turned and saw two young women jogging toward me, one of them holding my flier.

“Mister—are you looking for this girl?” The taller of the two, barefoot, wearing shorts and a black t-shirt.

“Do you know her? Katie Showalter?”

They stopped in front of me and caught their breath. “Yeah—we’ve been wondering where she went.”

“When’s the last time you saw her?”

“During Pride.” The shorter of the two, buzzed hair and heavy-set, wearing jeans shorts and a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up nearly to her shoulders.

Columbus had one of the Midwest’s biggest Gay Pride parades, with an accompanying festival here in the same park, though dwarfed by the much older community festival. That connection made me ask the obvious question, whether Katie was gay.

The shorter woman shook her head. “I just think she was tired of guys. And lonely. She liked hanging with us.”

“Did she say anything about going someplace?”

The taller woman said she hadn’t. “She stayed with us for a while, on our blanket, and then for some reason started talking to one of those preacher guys.”


“One of the creep-oids,” the other woman said. “They stand over there”—she gestured to the east side of the park—“and hold these signs of aborted fetuses and shout stuff about gay people going to hell.”

Now I knew who she meant. Though I didn’t agree with the message, I half-admired the messengers’ willingness to pitch it in a place where it was so unwelcome. Given the attendees at such festivals, Michigan fans in full maize and blue outfits were more welcome outside Ohio Stadium on game day.

“The same guy’s over there today,” the first woman said. “Maybe he knows.”

I thanked them for the tip and asked them a few more questions. They confirmed Marie’s story of her daughter’s troubles, including the moments of optimism after the martial arts bootcamp. When they saw I was headed to talk to the preacher they asked if they could tag along.

Some of the protesters that afternoon fit a certain stereotype, the men in scuffed, dark shoes, badly fitting suits and too-short ties, the women with their hair in buns and wearing long, conservative dresses a century out of style. The exception was the preacher who’d talked to Katie, a tall, well-built, athletic-looking young man who blended right into the festival crowd with shoulder-length hair and a de rigor outfit of sandals, cargo shorts, and a short-sleeve button down patterned shirt. Can We Talk? his sign said, in contrast to the fire-and-brimstone versions carried by the others. Most festival goers gave the group a wide berth, though a few posed for ironic selfies with the suit-wearing men, while a few more just flipped them the bird. Katie’s preacher was again the exception, as he was currently engaged in deep conversation with a woman sporting dreadlocks and multiple facial piercings. When I saw an opening I approached, introduced myself, showed him the flier and asked if he’d seen Katie. He studied the picture a moment too long before shaking his head.

“You’re sure?”

“I talk to a lot of people.”

“Someone saw you speaking with her during Pride.”

“I don’t remember, sorry.”

“Her mother’s worried about her.”

He met my gaze and held it with a pair of gemstone-blue eyes.

“If she was at Pride, her mother should be worried.”

I gave up and crossed back to the street where Katie’s friends awaited—Merrill and Beckah, as I’d learned—and explained our interaction.

“That’s bullshit,” said Beckah, the shorter of the two, who by now I’d taken was Merrill’s girlfriend. “He was definitely talking with her. We asked her what he said—it was something about a retreat center and a second chance.”

“You think she went with him?”

“I didn’t think so at the time,” Beckah said. “She laughed it off. But then we didn’t see her again after that.”

“Could one of you do me a favor?”

“Like what?” Merrill said.

“Go talk to him. Not about Katie, though. About yourself. Make like you’re open to his message and see what he says.”

“Open to his message how?”

“Use your imagination. I’m sure you can figure out the kinds of things he might want to hear.”

Merrill made a face but Beckah was game, especially after I told her I’d give her a twenty for her troubles. I retreated into the park with Merrill where we positioned ourselves behind a tent selling hand-crafted leather bags and wallets. I bought us each a lemonade while we waited, periodically craning our necks for a glimpse of the conversation. After nearly twenty minutes Beckah appeared, frowning.


“I did what you said. Told him I was pregnant and everyone wanted me to have an abortion, but I wasn’t so sure. He said he could take me someplace safe where I could have my baby in peace.”

“Did he say where?”

She shook her head and reached for Merrill’s hand. “He said he’d pick me up if I wanted, and they’d explain everything once I was there. The weird thing is, he’s kind of persuasive. And a really good listener.”

“Beckah!” Merrill said.

“I’m just saying.”

“So maybe Katie did go with him,” Merrill said to me.

“There’s one way to find out.”

It took another twenty, but Beckah agreed to walk back and accept his offer to be picked up the following morning. I had her give him the address of an apartment around the corner on Neil Avenue for lack of any place better. He told her he’d come by around nine.

“This is really freaking me out,” Beckah said as we walked across the park afterward, the sounds of a jazz quartet spilling from the gazebo closest to the pond on the north side of the park. “I mean, what if that’s what Katie did? Went with that guy?”

“Then we’re one step closer to finding her,” I said, as we reached my bike. I shook their hands, thanked them, and said I’d be in touch. What I didn’t say was that the situation was freaking me out too. Because if Katie had gone with the preacher—and an offer was on the table to Beckah—how many other young women might have taken the same ride?


I was parked on Neil by quarter to nine the next morning. I slipped on sunglasses and a ballcap, slouched down in my seat, pulled up that morning’s Dispatch on my phone, and waited. I didn’t have long. At one minute to nine a red Ford Expedition rolled past me and pulled up to the curb. Nothing happened at first. Five minutes in the door opened and the fit-looking preacher from the park got out, stood on the sidewalk and looked in both directions. He pulled out his own phone and made a call, presumably to the made-up number Beckah had given him. A few moments later he put his phone away and walked up and down the sidewalk, even coming as far as my van, where I kept my head down as I read the recap of the Clippers’ win over Indianapolis the night before. At nine-twenty he got back in the Expedition and pulled away. I started my van and followed. 

Before long we’d left city streets and hit I-70 going east. At the sign for Pataskala he exited and I signaled and stayed with him as suburban intersections slowly gave way to the country. Eventually, a couple miles down a sparsely populated two-lane road, he turned into a driveway that led to a big church at the bottom of a long incline. “Peter’s Rock: All Welcome,” said the billboard-sized entrance sign.

I continued down the road until I reached a gas station a mile farther on. I waited ten minutes, turned around, headed back to the church, and parked two spaces behind the red Expedition. The church was big and modern looking, the glass-and-steel architecture similar to numerous megachurches that had sprouted in and around Columbus in the past few decades. Brick wings on either side suggested classrooms or administrative space and maybe a gym to boot. A row of evergreens blocked my view of the rear of the property.

Inside, I found myself in a lobby that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an upscale Hilton. “GIVE HERE,” said the signs above three large kiosks, ringed with computer tablets outfitted with credit card readers. I passed a coffee shop bigger than most convenience stores and followed signs to the church office. A woman sitting at a desk smiled and asked how she could help. She didn’t appear to be much older than either Katie Showalter or Beckah. She wasn’t as good an actor as Beckah, however, as her face fell when I handed her the flier and my card. She picked up the phone and made a call, speaking in a low whisper, then told me with a frown that someone would be out shortly. She wasn’t exaggerating. Less than a minute later a woman strolled up the hallway flashing her own, far higher-wattage smile.

“I’m Pastor Sharon. Was there something I can help with?”

I handed her a flier and repeated my spiel. 

“Why don’t we speak in my office?”

She indicated I should follow her down the hall. I glanced at the young woman at her desk. She met my glance briefly, then turned away and stared at her computer screen, expression stony as that of a bust consigned to a shadowy museum corner.

The minister’s office was the last room on the right. Senior Pastor Sharon Melton declared the large brass plaque on the wall beside an oak-paneled door. Inside, her showroom-sized office was filled with leather-covered furniture and shelves crammed with titles like Planting The Seed of God and Grow Your Talents With Jesus. A framed portrait of her and a handsome, well-coiffed man I assumed was her husband dominated the wall opposite her desk. Melton sat on one end of a couch and waved me toward an adjoining chair.  

“Now then. You said you’re looking for this girl?”

“That’s right.”

“And is there a reason you think she’s here?” Melton was mid-forties, her attractive, professionally made-up face halfway between girl-next-door and cheerleader mom, wearing a contemporary blue dress, the hemline just below her knee, with a matching jacket; the outfit light years from the clothes that the sign-carrying women at the park were wearing the day before.

I explained about the long-haired man at the community festival, the fact people had seen him talking to Katie at Pride, and that I knew—without explanation—that he was connected to Peter’s Rock.

“Katie sounds like a troubled person,” Melton said.

“That’s a fair assessment.”

“The kind of girl we try to help.”

“Help how?”

“We offer numerous services. We’re a crisis pregnancy center, an addiction treatment facility, and a counseling haven for people struggling with their identity.”


“Meaning we help women achieve God’s plan for them.”

“Like Katie?”

“The names of our clients are strictly confidential, as I’m sure you can appreciate.”

“I may or may not. I’m mostly interested in whether Katie’s safe, if she’s here. Her mother’s worried about her.”

“I’m sorry she’s worried, whoever she is. But unfortunately, I can’t help you.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Was there anything else, Mr. Hayes?” Her smile never dimmed; it was the facial equivalent of stadium lights at halftime.

“Is it possible for me to tour your treatment centers?”

“Unfortunately not,” she said, rising from the couch. “But I truly appreciate your interest in our work.”

“Do the girls appreciate it? The ones who come here?”

“Of course they do,” she said, almost blinding me with her smile. “Because God is with them.”

“Could I talk to them? I mean, alone, without God?”

“Goodbye, Mr. Hayes,” Melton said, pointing at her office door.


Driving away, I caught a glimpse of a roof through the thick barrier of evergreens surrounding the rear of the church property. Evergreens and a tall chain-link metal fence. I slowed and saw part of a small house, a gap, and then the corner of another small building. Cottages, if I had to guess. The residences of women receiving the services offered by Peter’s Rock? Given their circumstances, was the seclusion any surprise? And what religious facility like this was obliged to open its doors to a prying private eye in the first place? Melton’s guarded ways almost made sense. Yet I couldn’t shake the expression on the face of the young woman at the desk when she’d seen Katie’s picture, along with her refusal to look at me again as I left Melton’s office and walked back through the lobby.

On the drive home I called Roy Roberts and asked if he’d ever heard of Peter’s Rock.

“Sure,” he said. “That’s Todd Melton’s church.”


“‘Todd the God.’ Run-of-the-mill televangelist with second and third helping of worldly trappings.”


“Private jet, six-bedroom McMansion, matching Escalades for him and his wife. The usual perks for servants of the Lord.”

“Present company excluded? And how do you know all this, by the way?” 

Roy, a former Army chaplain, was now an Episcopal priest serving a parish in a poor neighborhood just west of downtown. He was also one of my closest friends in town, despite the fact I’m either a devout atheist or ardent agnostic depending on the day and the humidity.

“I had to sell my jet, sadly,” he said. “I know this because I read it in the paper when he was arrested.”

“For what?”

“A few years back he endorsed a slate of right-wing state office candidates from the pulpit and basically dared the IRS to come after him.”

“Did they?”

“Those who forget Al Capone’s tax troubles are doomed to repeat them. I heard his wife took the reins when he went to prison, but under dramatically reduced circumstances. Why are you interested in this guy, if I may ask?”

I explained my search for Katie Showalter, including the fact that Peter’s Rock appeared to be trolling progressive city festivals for female clients who then disappeared from sight. I also noted the church didn’t seem to be suffering from any financial fallout that I could see.

“I’ve never heard of this treatment center thing. Are they licensed?”

I confessed I didn’t know.

“You’ve piqued my interest. Let me make a couple calls.”

I thanked him, put my phone down and concentrated on the drive. As a result, it wasn’t until I reached home that I saw I’d missed a call from Marie Showalter.

“I just had a text from Katie,” she said in a breathless voice when I called back.

“What did it say?”

“It said, ‘Don’t worry. I’m fine. Tell Rusty I miss him and I’ll see him soon.’”

“Who’s Rusty?”

“Our dog. Who died three years ago.”


Armed with Roy’s information, I made a series of calls to county and state offices, and despite hitting some bureaucratic roadblocks, determined after a couple hours that whatever good the church might be doing, they weren’t undertaking it with any public certification. I did, however, confirm that Peter’s Rock not only still had its own plane, it had upgraded a year ago to an eight-passenger Embraer jet with a luxury cabin. Moreover, Google maps showed the recent addition of an in-ground pool to the Meltons’ six-bedroom rectory with matching six-car garage. So, if Todd was in prison, the church had sold its old jet to pay off back taxes, and the publicity-averse congregation had dwindled, where was all this money coming from?

When Roy called back, he had confirmation of the same facts, plus an interesting detail: Sharon Melton had served for two years on a governor’s anti-pornography task force focused on helping men suffering from porn addiction. When he was finished, I told him about the text Marie received with the comment about the family’s deceased dog.

“Sounds like there’s something weird going on out there,” Roy said. “Or weirder than usual, given that we’re dealing with Todd the God.”

“I think I need to pay a return visit, but under different circumstances.”

“Like a thief in the night, as the Bible says?”

“If the Bible has ninjas, sure.”


It was a few minutes past ten that night when Roy pulled his Subaru over just past the far edge of the now-dark church property. I jumped out and told him I’d text him when I was clear.

“And if things go south?”

“Say a prayer for me.”

“I always do.”

Moments later I slipped over a portion of the fence farthest removed from security lamps illuminating the property. I scrambled for the cover of low-hanging evergreen branches and crouched for ten minutes until I felt certain no alarms had been triggered. So assured, I stood and pushed my way through the trees.

Before me, a dozen small cabins ran down a narrow gravel lane, all newish-looking and simply built, construction reminiscent of a state park on a tight budget. Light leaked from the rear windows of several of the cabins, but blinds prohibited any view inside. Same with the side windows. I crept behind them until I reached the cabin closest to the protective break of evergreens between the cabins and the church. Choosing my steps carefully, I walked around to the front. Porch lights glowed on eleven of the twelve cottages.

Straight-forward enough, but how was I supposed to figure out which one Katie was in, if she was even here? 

As if in response, the porch light above the door on the cabin three doors down began to pulse on and off. A moment later, a light two doors farther down also began to pulse.

Either a sign or a trap, I thought, heading for the cabin with the pulsing light nearest to me by scurrying between the structures one at a time and pausing along the side wall of each. Coast clear, I tiptoed onto the cabin’s porch. I peered at a cedar shingle near the top of the door. Jezebel, read the name burned arts-and-crafts into the wood. Below it, a peephole glinted with light reflected from the rhythmic pulsing of the soft, white bulb above. I stepped forward and peered inside. I was not expecting what I saw next.

The young woman I’d seen earlier in the day at the church reception desk was standing in the middle of the cottage. Staring at her, I saw what I’d missed before: she was pregnant. I came to this conclusion easily since she was also nearly naked. Topless, left hand down her panties, she gyrated slowly as if moving to unheard music. An ostensibly sexy scene, yet the granite expression on her face drained the activity of any allure, at least to my eyes. I’d seen the same sullen look on half-naked women’s faces many times at the strip clubs I confess to haunting years earlier as a randy young quarterback strutting my stuff. 

Troubled by the scene, I quietly retreated from the porch, crept down the gravel lane and arrived at the next cottage with a pulsing light. Lilith, the sign on the door said. I looked through the corresponding peephole.

Inside, engaged in the same gyrations but with an even worse attempt to masquerade what she was really feeling, was Katie Showalter.


I tried the handle but the door was locked. I took a breath and knocked. Nothing happened right away. I looked through the peep hole again. Katie stood frozen, staring uncertainly at the door. I knocked once more and quietly called her name. She reached out of my line of vision, retrieved a bathrobe, put it on and approached the door.

“Who’s there?” 

“Katie? I need you to open up.”

She didn’t say anything. I repeated the directive.

In a voice so soft I nearly missed it, she said, “You told me not to, while, you know …”

“It’s all right,” I said, not sure what she meant.

She didn’t move for another couple of moments. Finally, just as I was thinking I might have to abort my mission, she stepped forward and the door handle turned. 

The cabin’s interior was sparsely furnished, with only a bed against the rear wall, a small chest of drawers, and a bathroom where I spied a large bottle of pills on the edge of the sink. Behind me, to the right of the door, stood a wooden table with a chair to one side. In the middle of the table, propped atop three Bibles, sat an open laptop. Clipped to the top was a small device I recognized as a webcam. It was live, since I could see Katie and me on the laptop screen. 

“Who are you?” Katie whispered. “Are you supposed to be here?”

I explained who I was, and that I was working for her mother. I mentioned Merrill and Beckah, and how all of them were worried about her. “Are you all right? And what’s this all about?” I gestured at the laptop.

“We’re not supposed to talk about it.”

“Why not?”

“Pastor Sharon says people won’t understand.”

“Try me. I promise just to listen.”

Hesitantly, she said, “It’s the Talents Show.”

“The what?”

“It’s what they call it.”

“What who calls it?”

“Pastor Sharon and the disciples.”

“They call what you were doing just now the Talents Show?”

She nodded. Her heavily made-up eyes were dull and rimmed by circles as dark as the leather-bound Bibles beneath the laptop.

“We just have to do it at night for a while.”


“It’s part of the therapy.”

“Your therapy?”

She shook her head. “The men.”

“What men?”

“The men who like that kind of stuff, I guess. Pastor Sharon says that by watching us girls dance, they wean themselves off real porn.”

“She told you that?”

“She says we’re dancers for Jesus. That’s why it’s OK.” I processed this, and said, “The light, outside. Why was it was pulsing just now?”

“It goes on when we’re live,” Katie said. “So the disciples know not to interrupt.”

“How thoughtful of them.” I peered at the laptop screen for a better look. At the bottom, a digital counter registered the number 457. Above that, a series of scrolling comments alternated between profanity-laced protests at the interruption and demands that I take my own clothes off and do things to Katie that didn’t bear repeating. Embedded in the video stream was a small logo: Only4Fans. I had my phone out a moment later.

According to Google, Only4Fans was a pay-for-view Internet site, one whose specialty was clearly not people painting watercolors while the world watched. I thought back to what Roy and I had discovered about the new plane and the upgrades to the Meltons’ supersized rectory, along with Sharon Melton’s service on the anti-porn task force. I was guessing this website explained the church’s mysterious new revenue.

I turned to Katie. “They make you do this?”

She was sitting on the bed, nearly asleep, and started at my question. “It’s just part of the program. We do it while we get better.” As she spoke, I stepped into the bathroom and examined the bottle of pills. Suboxone—a common treatment for opioid addiction. But no name on the bottle as required for a normal prescription.

“And if you don’t perform?” I said softly.

She didn’t reply right away.


“They show our family.”


“They have our phones. And all our passwords.” Fear gripped her face and she came alive for the first time since I’d been inside. “Please—it would kill my mom. This one girl, they showed her grandmother pictures, and she …”

“She what?”

Katie’s eyes grew bright but she didn’t get a chance to respond. Behind us the door burst open. Sharon Melton strode in, fire in her eyes, followed by the preacher from the community festival. A moment later the preacher had me pinioned in his arms. I struggled but his grip was iron: he’d clearly wrestled a lot of Philistines.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Melton said, her look of scorn replacing the smile from earlier as handily as a switchblade clicking open.

“I could ask you the same.”

“You’re not in a position to ask anything. Get dressed and meet me in the chapel.” The last comment directed at Katie. “I’ll be there as soon as I deal with him.”

“Deal with me?” I said. “What are you going to do? Throw me into the lion’s den?”

“You’re trespassing. I’ll do whatever I see fit.”

I tested the preacher’s grip to no avail. And me with no scissors to hack off Samson’s hair. At the rear of the cabin, her back to us, Katie pulled on a bra and t-shirt. She was reaching for a pair of jeans when something occurred to me.


She turned.

“Shut up,” Melton said.

“I know about Rusty. The text they let you send your mom. You knew you needed help.”

A flicker of light in her eyes.

“I said, shut up.”

“You went to a bootcamp, didn’t you?” I said, ignoring Melton.

“Get him out of here.”

I gasped as my arms were pulled back even tighter and the preacher dragged me toward the door. But I saw I had Katie’s attention, if just for a moment.

“A martial arts bootcamp, right?”

“Last chance, Mr. Hayes.”

“Your mom said you did pretty well there.”

“Move it,” Melton hissed. 

“Your mom loves you, Katie, no matter what.”

“Out!” Melton shouted.

Katie dropped her jeans and shrugged off the pastor’s outreached arm as she stepped toward me. The roundhouse kick she unleashed won’t make a “Best Of” YouTube compilation anytime soon. But it still landed with enough force on my captor’s left knee that it buckled slightly, which was just enough leverage for me to pull free, deliver my own kick to the preacher’s twisting knee, followed by a second kick to his groin and then a hands-clasped blow to his head which sent him to the ground for an extended prayer time. Once I was sure he was out, I instructed Katie to finish dressing and gather her few belongings, then texted Roy that we were ready to go.


Where two or more are gathered, I replied.

“I’ll have you prosecuted,” Melton said, hands balled into fists by her side. “This was an unprovoked attack.”

“In your dreams.”

“Prove otherwise, Mr. Hayes.”

“Happy to,” I said, gesturing at the laptop. “The whole thing was live. You and Goliath here have gone viral. Just not the way I think you were hoping.”


Katie reunited with her mom the next day in my house, along with Beckah and Merrill. Across town, investigators crawled over both the church’s property and its books, paying special attention to the unlicensed distribution of pharmaceuticals. 

In a private moment, Marie told me it might be a while until she could pay me. I told her not to worry and I meant it, mostly, thinking about my anemic bank account.

A few minutes after everyone left, my cell phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. I usually don’t.

“I’m trying to reach Andy Hayes?”

“You’ve got him.”

“My name’s Cathy Neumann. I heard your name on the news just now. My daughter was at that church. She’s the one ... the one who’s missing.” Voice frail and tiny, as if she’d just finished weeping—or hadn’t wept enough.

“I’m sorry to hear that. How can I help?”

“You take these kinds of cases, don’t you? You find people?”

“I do my best.”

“I don’t have much right now. But I’ll pay your fee eventually. I promise.”

“Don’t sweat it—love of money’s the root of all evil, anyway,” I said, moving toward my laptop. “Now go ahead and start from the beginning.”

Monday, July 9, 2018

Long Drive Home, by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Shayne made him pick up the tab at the diner they stopped at south of Charlotte, which was when Marty finally realized how much trouble he was in. Normally, Shayne fronted everything with a roll of cash as thick as the business end of a baseball bat, handing it to Marty with a wink right before Marty headed out, which was Shayne’s way of letting him know he had him covered, but also that he was good at counting bills. Marty always nodded and said thanks and made a production of pocketing the money with the care of someone in an old war movie receiving orders before heading across enemy lines. Because Shayne had it figured down to the dime—besides the cost of the product, how much Marty and them would need for gas, food and tolls from Columbus to West Palm Beach and back, plus two nights in the Oceanside at $49.99 a night, including cable. Forget about a hotel on the road. That wasn’t happening. There were three of them. They could just switch drivers.

Only not this time. This trip it was just Shayne and Marty. Marty didn’t know a thing about it until he showed up that night, sitting in the parking lot outside Shayne’s apartment, engine running, staying inside the van to keep warm because at thirty degrees the temperature was below normal for November. He didn’t want to make the trip—he never really wanted to go—but at least it would be warmer down south. He worried about his sister when he was away. Her and the twins. He worried about them all the time, to be truthful. But especially when he was gone.

“Let’s do this,” Shayne said, climbing into the van, Mountain Dew in hand. He tossed a backpack in the rear.

“Where’s Frankie? And Mike?”

“They’re not coming.”

“They’re not?”

“What I said. Just you and me, partner.”

“Why aren’t they coming?”

“I told ‘em not to.”


“Figured just you and me this time. Road trip buddies. Plus I need a vacation. Get some Florida titty for a change. Pinch me some southern fruit.” He opened and closed his thumbs and pointer fingers like crab claws. “This Ohio titty’s starting to suck. Ha—you get that?”

“But Frankie and Mike always—”

“Frankie and Mike always come because I tell ‘em to. This time I’m telling ‘em not to. Simple as that. Let’s go. One stop and we’re outta here.”

“What stop?”

“Enough with the questions. Just drive where I tell you.”

Marty followed Shayne’s instructions, not that he couldn’t guess where they were going. What was more important was figuring out was why it was just him and Shayne. Shayne never went with. Shayne gave him the cash and then him and Frankie and Mike spent a day driving and two days buying pills and another day driving back. He handed Shayne the pills and Shayne handed him his cut, and Marty handed half to Janney. His sister needed it a hell of a lot more than he did. And he wasn’t going to see her back . . . where she’d been. He promised himself that. Except—

Except the half just wasn’t enough.

They found the girl sitting on a porch a block off Sullivant. Thin as a discount store rake with torn jeans and a hoodie the color of winter mud. Her flat eyes said old woman; her face and body said late teens, tops. Shayne opened the back door and she got in and Shayne told Marty to drive around the corner and down an alley.

“You mind?” Shayne said when they stopped.


“Little privacy?”

So Marty hopped out and stood a discrete distance away and smoked and tried not to listen to the sounds coming from the van. He winced when he heard the girl cry out in pain. He stood another minute and then the door opened and Shayne called him back. He stubbed out the cigarette and returned to the driver’s side and drove back around the corner and dropped the girl off.

“Pinched her titties,” Shayne said, taking a swig of soda. “Makes ‘em yell. They like it, you know?”

Marty didn’t respond. He drove up the street and found the entrance ramp to I-70 and got them on the road. He was thinking the girls Shayne got with didn’t like their titties pinched. He thought of Janney and the twins, and his shock learning she’d been working some of these same streets to make ends meet. Never again, he told her. So far, he’d kept his promise.

Most of all he wondered why Frankie and Mike weren’t coming. He had his suspicions, all right. But it wasn’t until they pulled into the all-night diner around 4 a.m. and Shayne ordered them plates of eggs and home fries and sausage and pancakes and toast and then when they were done told Marty to pay up while he went to the can, that he allowed himself to acknowledge the truth.

Shayne knew what Marty had been doing. And he was going to make sure it didn’t happen again. And if it didn’t happen again and Marty didn’t get the extra cash, Janney and the twins were up a creek.


Alex stared at the knife, not sure she was seeing right.

Black handle. Six inches of gleaming blade. Tip as sharp as a gator’s tooth. Lying next to the chopping block where Auntie Jodie left it after cutting up all those ribs last night. She was always slicing ribs, the meat thick and fat, and slow cooking them, and sitting at the picnic table outside tearing the flesh off the bones and wiping the sauce off her lips. Never asking Alex if she wanted any. Because Auntie Jodie only ever asked her two questions.

The first: “You ready?” The second: “How much you get?”

The knife. Just sitting there. Not like Auntie Jodie to leave it out.

Alex had grown accustomed to the questions. She’d grown accustomed to a lot of things. The slaps to her face and the cuffs to her ears. The pills she needed to keep her skin from itching and burning. Always feeling hungry. Yeah, a real routine.

What Alex wasn’t used to was being alone this long in the trailer’s tiny kitchen that smelled of cooked meat and spilled beer with Auntie Jodie gone and a knife sitting by itself next to the chopping block.

She reached out and touched the handle, half expecting it to disappear, like something with a spell on it. Like in a cartoon movie, one with princesses. With a good princess and a bad witch. But nothing happened. Outside Alex heard gulls crying as they circled the Dumpster and the sound of traffic on the highway headed for the Magic Kingdom and someone yelling to someone else to shut the hell up. But inside the trailer it was quiet. Alex hesitated only a moment. She reached out and wrapped her fingers around the knife handle. It felt cool to the touch. She drew it close, lifting the blade to her face and turning it flat until she could see her eyes reflected in the metal. Weary red eyes, smeared with mascara she never seemed able to wash off. She looked at herself for a whole minute. She realized she couldn’t remember the last time she’d gazed in a mirror. She lowered her hand and moved back to the table and slipped the knife into the drawstring bag where she kept the power bars and the make-up and the condoms Auntie Jodie gave her each morning.

“You ready?”

Auntie Jodie, barging through the door. Publix bags hanging from each enormous hand. She dropped them on the table in front of Alex and tried to catch her breath.

Alex said, “You talk to the guy?”

“What guy?”

“The guy. About the job.”


Anna. You said you’d talk to him.”

“Right. The job.” Auntie Jodie pulled ribs and jars of barbecue sauce from the bags. “Yeah, I did, as a matter of fact.”


“He’s interested. He just needs a little more. It’s a finder’s fee thing.”

“How much?”

“Five hundred.”

Alex’s heart sank. “Five hundred?”

“Not that much. Two, three days tops, right? No big deal.”

“The thing is, I was hoping—”

“Hoping what?”

“Hoping maybe I could take a day off.”

Alex’s head pitched backwards at the impact of the slap.

“A day off?” A wheeze separating each word. “How you gonna get the five hundred if you don’t work?”

“Dunno,” Alex said, rubbing her face where it stung the most.

Auntie Jodie dropped her off an hour later. The motel set back from the busy four-lane road. A single palm tree with brown-tinged leaves outside the office, like it survived a brushfire, but just barely.

“Got ‘em stacked up for you, so don’t be dilly-dallying,” Auntie Jodie said, tapping at her phone with fingers like sausages. “I’ll be around the corner, you need me.”

“Five hundred, and I’ve got the job?”

“Five hundred and you’ve got the interview. One thing at a time, all right?”

Alex nodded. She stepped back, drawstring bag in hand, watching Auntie Jodie pull away. When she was gone she walked across the parking lot and used the key to let herself into No. 43. She sat on the bed and waited for the first knock of the day.

She looked at her phone.

It was nine o’clock in the morning.


Shayne finally took the wheel on the other side of Savannah when Marty told him he couldn’t hold his eyes open any longer and was afraid they’d have an accident. Even then Shayne wouldn’t do it until they found a Parkers where Marty could buy Shayne more Mountain Dew. One of the twenty-ounce jobbers Shayne liked to guzzle in a single go. As if he had no regard for what he was drinking, or how it tasted . . .

How it tasted. The idea came to Marty as he drifted off to sleep. Because Shayne sure loved his Mountain Dew. It could work, he thought. It just might work . . .

“Let’s go.”

Marty jerked awake, staring wildly. They were parked at a rest stop. He looked at his phone. He’d slept only an hour, dead to the world the entire time.


“C’mon. My turn to sleep.”

Marty rubbed his face, cleared his throat, switched places with Shayne and pulled back on the highway.

Six hours later they were in West Palm Beach. The air was hot and heavy and smelled of salt and diesel and fish left in paper bags overnight. They piled into the room at the Oceanside off U.S. 1 and Marty collapsed onto the bed, face down.

“I’m gonna grab some chow,” Shayne said. “Want anything?”

“I’m good,” Marty said. In a minute he’d call Janney. He knew he should call someone else, but he couldn’t risk it, with Shayne around. “Grab some chow” Shayne’s way of saying, “I’ll be right back—don’t even think about going anywhere.”

Marty could think of nothing else.

Well, that and the Mountain Dew.


I want 2 b Anna.

The first thing of substance Alex texted to Auntie Jodie after they traded cell phone numbers. Feeling shy as she did. Because she’d never told her dream to anyone, even her sister. She couldn’t say for sure how many times she’d watched Frozen, but a fair estimate might be two hundred viewings. There’d been that stretch over the summer when the temperature in Jacksonville peaked at ninety-five plus for two or three weeks running, and all she’d done was sit next to the window air conditioner and watch the movie over and over until it cooled down just enough to flop on the couch and fall asleep.

Anybody else?

She decided Pocahontas was an OK second choice, especially considering her Gramma was supposed to be one sixteenth or something Seminole. Ariel or Jasmine would be all right too, but not Belle. No way. How could you fall in love with a monster, no matter how nice he was? She explained all this in a flurry of texts to the lady who called herself Auntie Jodie, making sure she understood Anna was her first choice by a long shot. She said she understood. She said her brother knew a guy at Disney who did the casting for the park princesses, and it wouldn’t be a problem. That made sense, Alex thought, since Auntie Jodie was the one who’d placed the online ad for “Disney Princess Models” that she answered on one of those hot July days right after her eighteenth birthday. And sent her money for bus fare and new clothes within two days, no questions asked.

Alex thought she’d died and gone to heaven when she saw the hotel room Auntie Jodie put her up in the first couple of days and the meals she treated her to, in restaurants with actual cloth on the tables. Alex was so happy she didn’t mind when Auntie Jodie said she had to leave the hotel for a couple of days and stay with her while she scheduled the interviews with the guy. And she felt truly sorry for Auntie Jodie when she arrived home one night and explained, shamefacedly, that the guy was willing to meet with her, but she might have to “play along a little” depending on what happened, because that’s how these guys work.

Alex played along, though she hadn’t wanted to.

She played along with the next guy, too.

And the next one, and he hurt her badly enough that once she’d stopped crying she accepted the pill to help with the pain that Auntie Jodie offered apologetically as she wiped her own eyes, like marbles pressed into the dough of her face, and put her arm around Alex’s shoulder.

And then cuffed her, telling her to be more careful next time.

And then gave her another pill.

That was in September. Now it was November. And she still needed another five hundred before she could get the interview.

“So talk to the guy tomorrow?” Alex said that afternoon.

“He had to cancel,” Auntie Jodie said. “Probably Thursday.”

“Thursday for sure?”

“Fingers crossed,” she wheezed.

Alex tried to zone out when they got back to the trailer, but it was hard to relax with Auntie Jodie stomping around the kitchen, yelling that she couldn’t find her knife. Alex just stared at the TV, thinking about Anna and crinkly dresses with puffy sleeves and five hundred dollars.

And the knife. And what she might do with it if Auntie Jodie didn’t stop hitting her.


Even with Shayne along the routine was the same. They started at EveryMed Rx Pharmacy, where Marty presented the forged prescription for Oxycodone and turned over a hundred dollars and received two full bottles and a form to sign saying they were for personal medicinal use only. They went to Family Ready Pharmacy next, repeating the drill, and BetterMed Rx after that. They drove past Walgreens and CVS and Walmart. It wasn’t worth the risk. Those places had computer systems now and you had to show your license.

It was late in the afternoon when they arrived at Chronic Care Management Clinic on an access street off the airport road. When it came their turn they presented themselves, explaining they’d hurt their backs at a construction site in Pompano Beach. Marty went in first. The doctor who saw him was pear-shaped, pale-skinned and had thick, brushed-back hair the color of crow feathers shed in a downpour.

“Show me where it hurts.” The doctor’s eyes soft and sympathetic.

“I think it’s my L5, S1,” Marty said by rote, reaching around to his lower back. “It’s popped before.”

“I would concur,” the doctor said, not moving from his chair. He wrote a prescription and handed it to Marty and told him he hoped he felt better and said the dispensary was down the hall. Marty nodded, not bothering to explain he knew that already. He handed over the cash and received four bottles in return and went outside and waited for Shayne.

“I’m gonna grab some chow,” Shayne said, looking at his watch. “Want anything?”

They ate pizza in the motel room, curtains open so they could watch the sunset over the ocean, even being the ocean was almost a mile away. Finished, Marty leaned back on his pillow, fighting sleep, and also a feeling of hopelessness. It was around this time, the work for Shayne done, that normally he was accustomed to saying so long to Frankie and Mike and taking a side trip down the road. To a house that wasn’t much more than a shack with a sign outside advertising herbal drugs and ozone therapy. A place where he could get double the pills for the price at the clinic. It had been so easy. On his return, present Shayne with exactly the number of pills he’d budgeted for. Then, afterward, take the extra pills he’d bought, yeah, technically with Shayne’s money, and distribute them on the sly through his buddy, and take the money from those sales and give it all to Janney. Between Marty’s cut from Shayne and the side dough she could make rent and buy diapers and food and not ever go back to the streets. Back to the pimp and his helper girl who treated Janney so bad.

But not tonight. Tonight Marty lay on the bed in the motel room while Shayne watched a Survivor show and drank his Dew and worked his phone. Marty drifted off, only to awake with a start hours later. He’d heard a shout—a high-pitched feminine yell. He looked at the other bed and saw a girl on top of Shayne trying to keep his hands off her breasts as Shayne said, “You like that, don’t you?”

In the morning Marty woke up and then Shayne woke up and they did it all over again.


“I got to $500 yesterday,” Alex said. “I counted it. So how come—”

“How come is the guy’s not feeling well and asked if we could meet Monday instead,” Auntie Jodie said. “And I told him yeah, because he’s being nice enough to meet with me.”

“With us.”


“You said meet with you. But he’s meeting with us, right? Because this is for the Anna job I want.”

“Right,” Auntie Jodie said, hand planted on her sofa-cushion sized chest as she tried to catch her breath. Better on her chest than Alex’s face. “Meet with us. That’s what I meant. Here’s a chance to get a little ahead, is all I’m thinking. Maybe just half a day. Whaddaya think?”

“I think I’d rather meet the guy.”

“I’d rather meet the guy too. Monday’s only three days.”

So Auntie Jodie dropped Alex back at the motel. And noon came, and she stopped by to check on her, and brought her a sandwich and a water bottle, and cuffed her, and apologized between shallow breaths as she explained there was just one more, some tourist, and then they could go home.

“How long,” Alex said, resting her hand on the drawstring bag. Feeling the outline of the knife under the material. Sneaking a glance at Auntie Jodie, guessing where the breastbone might be underneath all that fat.

“He’s on his way now.”

“Then we see the guy Monday?”

“Then we see how the guy’s feeling Monday.”

“Hope he’s feeling better,” Alex said.

“On his way,” Auntie Jodie said.


Friday morning they hit EveryMed a second time because Marty knew a different pharmacist came on duty to work a three-day long weekend shift. They planned to visit two other clinics afterward, but the line was so long at the first they lost an hour. Even so, Shayne seemed content when they walked out.

“We got exactly what I counted on. What I calculated. You’ve got the routine down, partner. Have to hand it to you. Not a pill more or less. Glad I came along, see how it’s done. See where you go. I’m feeling good about this. I may make it a regular thing. I like being on the road. Different sights. Different fruit.” He did that crab claw thing again with his fingers.

“So we’re heading home?”

“Just one stop on the way. Little east of Orlando. Then it’s back to O-HI-O. You homesick already?”

Marty thought about Janney. The panic in her voice when he’d snuck the call to her that morning, while Shayne was in the bathroom. The sound of the twins’ crying in the background.

“Just a homebody, I guess.”

“Not me. I like to get out and go.”

“I’ll pack the van.”

They drove until Cocoa West and then Shayne told him to exit and read him directions and they drove a few miles more until they came to a light. Marty turned right, and then left, and then into the parking lot of a motel with a single palm tree by the business office with brown-tinged leaves.

“Wait here,” Shayne said. “I won’t be long.”

“OK,” Marty said. Trying to keep his voice natural. Waiting until the van door slammed shut and Shayne was walking away to reach down and grab Shayne’s soda bottle.



“You like that, huh?”

“No—stop it,” Alex said.

“How about like this?”

Ow! That really hurts.”

“I like it too,” the man said.

Alex arched back, trying to keep him inside her but also lean far enough away that his hands couldn’t reach her breasts. When his fingers first touched them she recoiled inside, as she always did, but figured it wouldn’t last long because this guy looked and acted like he needed it bad and was in a hurry. Creepy looking, eyes the color of a palmetto bug’s back. The sooner he was gone the better. Then he pinched her and she jerked back, yelling at the pain, and instead of apologizing he laughed and did it again.

She couldn’t lean back far enough.


She rolled off him and scooted to the end of the bed.

“The fuck are you doing?”

“I told you that hurts.”

“And I told you I like it. Get back up here.”

“Not if you’re going to do that. That’s not the deal.”

“The deal?” The guy laughed. “The deal’s what I say it is.”

“No it ain’t,” Alex said, fumbling for her panties. “You need to leave.”

“I’m not leaving until I get what I paid for.”

“I didn’t say you could pinch—”

“Listen, bitch—” he said, slithering down the bed.

“No!” she said as he grabbed her left arm. She pulled free and fell to the floor, landing on top of the drawstring bag.

“No?” he said, laughing again as he reached for her.


It was a bit of an operation, it turned out, chewing the pills to a pulp, then carefully drooling them into the bottle of Mountain Dew, one dollop of spit at a time, mouth getting dryer and dryer at each go. Marty had done ten so far, which he figured was enough, but who really knew? Pure speculation that Shayne wouldn’t taste the pills as he drank the soda, though one thing in Marty’s favor was how thirsty Shayne always was after a girl. What he would do with Shayne later on, if it worked, he hadn’t thought about. He’d get to that. Janney might—

He stopped. He stared as a large woman—a very large woman—limped toward the room Shayne disappeared into a few minutes earlier. She walked with difficulty, legs like pile drivers and arms like sofa cushions. Flesh straining to burst from her black t-shirt and sweatpants. She knocked at the door, waited, knocked again, and went inside.

Shit. This wasn’t good. Shayne had the keys with him, like he always did. If that woman—

He had to do something. Shayne had the keys. And Shayne had to climb safely back in the van so he could drink his Mountain Dew.

Marty glanced around the parking lot, looked again, got out of the van and walked fast toward the room.


“You stupid, stupid girl,” Auntie Jodie said. Wheezing so badly she had to lean against the wall as she took in the scene before her.

“I didn’t mean to,” Alex said, head ringing from the blow from Auntie Jodie’s fist. She used a fist this time. “He wouldn’t stop pinching me.”

“Like that matters.”

“He hurt me.”

“Who cares—”

They both turned at the sound of the room door opening. A man stood in the doorway and stared.

“Holy crap,” he said.


It took a moment for Marty to process everything. Shayne on the bed on his back, a knife jutting from his left eye, blood pooling around him. A half-naked girl crouched at the end of the bed, a welt rising on her left cheek. The enormous woman glaring at him as she took deep, gasping breaths.

“Who—?” he started to ask.

Before he could finish she was coming for him, arms outstretched like giant rolling pins as she lurched in Marty’s direction. He braced himself and at the last second punched her soft chest with the palms of both hands and to his surprise she staggered backwards and fell over, the floor shaking a little, and just lay there, struggling for breath. Wheeze. Pause. Wheeze. Pause.

“Who are you?” the girl said.

“Who’s that?” Marty replied, pointing at the woman.


“She needs help,” Marty said.

“Like him?” the girl said, gesturing at Shayne.

Marty stood there, head spinning. He glanced down and realized he was still holding the bottle of Mountain Dew. He looked at the girl and then at Shayne and then the lady on the floor and then back to the girl. He saw how the girl stared at the lady. He thought of Janney and the twins and the streets he’d pulled his sister off. Away from the girl working for the pimp—not quite as fat as this lady, but getting there—the girl who kept hitting Janney for no reason . . .

“Sure,” Marty said. “Like him.”

He kneeled, twisted the top off the soda, and used his left hand to gently raise the woman’s head. She blinked, confused, but even in her state gratefully took a drink. And another. And another. When the bottle was mostly empty Marty lowered her head just as gently. After a couple of moments she snorted and gasped and her chest rose and fell three times like a hill riding an earthquake. After a couple more moments her head fell to the side and she wasn’t wheezing anymore.

Marty said, “Are you all right?”

The girl glanced at Shayne, naked and spread-eagled on the bed with a knife in his eye.

“I guess. Are you?”

Marty looked at the woman on the floor, bubbles of spit on her lips.


Marty turned his back while the girl gathered her clothes and went into the bathroom. When he heard the door shut and water running he went through Shayne’s clothes. He found the keys easily enough. Next he found Shayne’s wallet. It held all of eleven dollars. Disgusted, he threw the wallet and Shayne’s pants on the floor. The pants landed with an odd thud. Marty picked them up and felt around and reached inside the right pants leg.

The girl came out of the bathroom. She was wearing sneakers and jeans shorts and a t-shirt with a princess and some kind of snowman on it.

“What is that?” she said.

“It’s money.”

“I can see that. How much?”

“A lot.”

“A lot lot?”

He told her that it was.

The wad of cash Marty found in the sewn-in pocket down the leg of Shayne’s pants was as thick as the business end of a baseball bat. But unlike the wad Shayne always gave Marty, this wasn’t just twenties. These were hundreds. And there was another wad just like it in the other pants leg.

“We should go,” Marty said.


“You can come if you want.”


“I’m from out-of-state. Columbus, Ohio.”

“I’m from here. Jacksonville, actually.”

Neither of them spoke for a second.

“Could I have some money?” the girl said.


“You said it’s a lot.”

“How much?”

“I’m not sure.” She pulled a pile of greasy bills from a drawstring bag. “I don’t have quite enough.”

“For what?”

She told him.

Then she said, “Where’s that money from?”

He told her.

“So how about it?”

He thought about the twins and Janney and the streets she’d been on.

“It’s OK with me as long as we leave right now.”

He dropped her off at the Magic Kingdom entrance an hour later. Gave her four bottles of pills and half of Shayne’s cash. The remainder was still three times what he normally earned after a trip. More than enough for his sister and the twins. He watched the girl march toward the entrance gates, head held high and drawstring bag over her shoulder like a royal satchel or something, until he couldn’t see her anymore. Then he turned around and headed for the highway. He needed to be on his way. It was a long drive home, and it was just him behind the wheel.