Showing posts with label brandon barrows. Show all posts
Showing posts with label brandon barrows. Show all posts

Monday, October 9, 2023

Glass Houses, fiction by Brandon Barrows

We were on the patio by the pool, under a blazing hot sun. Marie sipped a melon daiquiri from a sweating glass, taking a break from reciting the same complaints for the millionth time. Her pretty, heart-shaped face didn’t look old enough to drink, but that was the result of good living and a lot of money. She was almost thirty; she’d been married for ten years and, if you believed her, hated her husband for almost as long. I believed.

Pete, you haven’t been listening to a word I’ve said.” Some people might have whined, but Marie was accusing. With her self-assurance and confidence she couldn’t be passive if she tried. She certainly would never whine. I wondered what she was like before marrying Albert Dixon and his money; was she born with this haughtiness or did she learn it? She never talked about her past, only how unhappy she was in the present.

Well, it’s your ass in the grinder if he finds out about us,” Marie said before taking another pull on her daiquiri straw.

Who’s going to tell him?” I asked. My eyes strayed beyond Marie to where Christopher, the houseman, was peeling an opaque, textured plastic film off of the big glass door that led from the patio to the house’s entertainment room. I’d never seen such a thing until a few weeks ago. When I asked about it, Marie said she bought it online a couple of years before, that it was designed for better privacy with glass doors or windows, but that it was really so her husband would stop stumbling into the otherwise crystal-clear door when drunk. It apparently happened several times, the big inebriated man thinking the closed door was open and walking into it. She didn’t care what happened to Al, but they used the room for parties, and the potential liability scared her.

Marie twisted in her chaise to see what I was looking at. As she did, Christopher started cleaning the window with a spray-bottle and rag. “Don’t worry about Chris. He knows where his bread’s buttered.”

I wasn’t worried.”

You should be.” Marie picked up a tube of suntan lotion and began spreading the creamy goo first on her arms and then across her chest. “Not about Chris, but when Al’s drunk, he’ll fly off the handle about any little thing and he’s jealous as hell. These last couple months with you have been wonderful, but it’s only a matter of time before he catches us. Want to hear what happened to the last guy?” She flashed a smirk like a mean little kid, handed me the tube and turned over, exposing her back, bare except for the tiny strip of white stretchy material keeping the bikini top in place.

I didn’t bother responding, just rubbed lotion between my hands then began massaging it into her skin, burned golden by the sun, feeling its silkiness and the smoothly taut muscles beneath. Finally, I said, “I think you want to be caught, having me in the house like this all the time.”

Marie’s head whipped around, anger in her eyes. “Maybe I do. Al’s got me trapped with that damned pre-nup. He knows I don’t love him, and he doesn’t care, but if I divorce him, I’m out on my butt without a dime.”

And a pretty little butt it is, sweetheart.” I patted her rear.

I’m serious, Pete. If he divorces me, I’d at least get alimony, but that’s chump-change. Maybe it’d be worth it, but most of the time, I’d rather put up with him than even think of living like some broke-ass. What I really want is to see him dead.” She turned back over, to better pin me with her glare. “Then I’d have plenty, even if I did have to split the money with his sister.”

What’s she like?”

Marie waved a hand. “I told you before, I don’t know the bitch. Al invited her to the wedding, but she never showed – just sent us a card and a god-damned Cuisinart. I guess they talk sometimes, but they never really got along and we never see each other. I don’t know why he keeps her in his will.”

I shrugged. “Family’s important.”

Whatever. It doesn’t matter, anyway. Even with the drinking, Al’s healthy as a horse. He’ll probably outlive us all, unless one of his drunken little accidents finally does the trick.”

That’s what I’ve been thinking about, baby: accidents.”

Marie scoffed, looking at me like I was the biggest idiot she ever met. “An accident? You’re out of your mind. The cops know every trick in the book. Believe me, I’ve watched enough Investigation Discovery to realize that. Get this into that handsome head: it’s impossible to fake something and get away with it.”

Sure,” I agreed. “Impossible to fake.” I looked past Marie, letting a smile play across my face. Christopher was examining the sliding glass door. He nodded in satisfaction, then picked up his bottle and rag and went inside. The plastic film he removed before cleaning the door was conspicuously absent.

Does he always do that?” I asked, jutting my chin towards the house.

Do what?” Marie turned to look and saw instantly what I meant. “Oh, the privacy film?” She looked to me. “Sure, he gives the window a few hours to dry before putting it back on so no moisture gets trapped. Why?”

Give the man the rest of the day off, and I’ll tell you after a little more thought.”

Marie frowned. “I can give Christopher the day; I don’t really need him anyway. But why can’t you tell me what you’re thinking now?”

Because, baby.” I leaned forward, tilted her chin up and lowered my lips to hers. Her mouth opened beneath mine and I felt a little shiver go through her as my tongue darted inside her mouth, then back out as I pulled away. “I’ve got other things on my mind right now.”

Her face flushed and her voice was husky as she said, “Let’s go inside.”


Later, we lay in bed. I was flat on my back, watching the tendril of smoke from Marie’s cigarette crawl towards the ceiling. I hated the smell of the thing, and I hated tasting it in her mouth, but it was a small price for all the benefits I was enjoying now and those still in the future.

It’s just wild enough to work, Pete.” Her weight shifted and I felt the softness of her breast against my shoulder. “People have been hurt, or even killed, like that. Mostly little kids, I think, but I read about a woman in India who died in some bank running into an electronic door that wasn’t working right. She went clear through it.”

Uh huh,” I said. “And Al’s already got a history with your door, right?”

He gave himself a bloody nose last time. He’s lucky. He might have crashed right through it if he was moving any faster. Christopher cleans it so well, you can’t even see it at night. That’s why I got the—“

She cut herself off, sitting up straight and gripping my shoulder tightly. “The film. Christopher took it off to clean the glass. That’s why you had me give him the rest of the day off, so he’d forget to put it back on.”

I grinned up at her, but didn’t say anything. I didn’t have to.

And tonight’s Al’s poker game with all his stupid little buddies. He won’t be home until one or two in the morning and he’ll probably be smashed.”

You said he always has a nightcap when he comes home?” There was an extensive bar in the entertainment room. Standing at it or sitting on one of its high stools, the room was designed so you had a perfect view of the pool through the sliding glass door.

Uh huh,” Marie said. “He can’t sleep without one last drink, the god-damned lush.” Her brow wrinkled; fine lines appeared around her eyes and mouth, making her look closer to her age. “But why would he go out to the pool? He can swim, but he hardly ever does, and never at night.”

Easy.” I shifted to a sitting position, my back against the padded headboard. “We wait ‘til he’s at the bar, drinking his schnapps or whatever, then you scream and throw yourself straight into the deep end. He’ll hear you and go smashing through the door to save you from drowning. He would save you, right?”

He’d try.” Marie sneered. “He likes to take care of his property and that’s all I am to him.” She took hold of my shoulder again, gripping so tightly it hurt. There was a mixture of excitement and worry dancing in her eyes now. “What if it doesn’t work, though? What if he remembers the door or accidentally touches it first or something?”

So we muff it, that’s all. He yanks you out of the pool and he’s your big, strong hero-man for a day or two. We’ll just have to wait, figure out something else, and try again.”

Marie stubbed the cigarette out in the nightstand ashtray, a thoughtful look on her face. After a full minute, she said quietly, “It’ll work.” She turned to me, wearing a grin of sly anticipation. “It’ll work, Pete. He’ll be drunk and he’ll either be flying high from winning at poker or he’ll be looking for a way to redeem himself if he loses. You know, boost his self-esteem. Either way, he’ll hear me scream, see me splashing around out there, and go crashing right through the glass trying to play Mister Hero. He probably won’t even think about the door, not with it freshly cleaned and the film gone. And if he thinks of it at all, he’ll just think the door’s already open.

You’ll need to be there, though, Pete.” She took my hand, lacing her long, delicate fingers through mine as she pinned my eyes with hers. “Just stay in the shadows by the cabanas and once he’s through the door, you’ll have to pull me out, all right? You know I’m not a strong swimmer, and the deep end makes me nervous.”

Sure, I know,” I told her. She owned more bathing suits than any woman I ever met, but I never once saw her in the water.

If it does work, you’ll have to be a witness. We’ll tell the police that you were having a drink with Al at the bar, and you heard me scream, and Al rushed right out through the door before you could stop him.” She paused. “And Pete?” She was studying me now, looking at me as if she could see inside me, like she was searching for something.


You know if this only sort of works what you’ll have to do, right? Are you sure you have the stomach for it? I mean, if he breaks the door, but he isn’t…”

She didn’t have to finish. If Albert Dixon didn’t cut his own throat smashing the glass door to pieces, would I be capable of picking up one of those jagged shards and doing it for him? I didn’t answer, not with words, and I don’t know what she saw on my face or in my eyes, but I knew what I was thinking and somehow, she did, too. Her gaze jerked away, and her fingers untangled from mine.

I gave her hand a squeeze, surprised at how cold it felt when it was so warm a moment earlier. “Relax. It’ll work out,” I told her. She nodded and forced herself to smile, but still pulled her hand free.


It worked perfectly, everything exactly as I planned.

At one-thirty-one the next morning, Albert Dixon came home from his poker game and went right into the entertainment room for a final drink before bed. From the darkness around the cabanas, I clearly saw him pour himself a big drink from a little bottle and swig half of it down in the first gulp. He was just lifting the glass to finish it off when Marie’s scream ripped the night apart. It was followed instantly by a splash. Al’s head whipped around, the glass, forgotten, dropped from his fingers, and he charged towards the pool.

First, the sliding door shattered with a sharp crack, like splintering bone, and then there were almost-melodic sounds as thousands of razor-edged shards tinkled to the concrete of the patio. Al Dixon’s form, already bloodied from dozens of cuts, went sprawling face-forward into a heap of deadly debris. The spurting blood, bright against the gray-white concrete, quickly pooled around his head, shining dully in the light spilling from the house. I was glad that his face was turned away.

Keeping to the shadows, I moved towards the nearest edge of the pool. It was maybe twenty seconds since Marie threw herself into the deepest part, but she was already struggling to keep her head above water and as I watched, she was quickly losing the battle. She screamed, she spluttered, she called out for me. All I could think was that my guess was right. She wasn’t a weak swimmer; she couldn’t swim at all.

Marie went down one last time. I stood watching for a few minutes more, but the night was already reclaiming its calm. The Dixons’ property was a couple acres and surrounded by both hedges and white-washed fences, so I wasn’t worried about nosy neighbors. I was just glad that it was finally over and taking a moment to regain my own equilibrium.

Finally, I let myself out of the back gate, walked through a short stretch of woods to where I left my car, parked on the side of a little-used dirt road. Driving back to my hotel, I thought over the last several hours. My only regret was for Christopher, who would probably feel personally responsible when he found the scene in the morning. After all, his not replacing the door’s privacy film was the direct cause of this tragedy, of the death of a man killed while rushing to save his poor, drowning wife.

In my hotel room, I packed my things. It would be good to finally go home, to see Allison again. It was only about nine weeks, but it was the longest we’d been apart since we were married the year before. Even with Marie to distract me, I missed my wife more than I would have thought possible. I needed to see her, to hold her in my arms, to feel her love again. This was all her idea, but she would be eager to have me back, too. Especially now – she would need someone to provide comfort in this time of grief. Even if they didn’t like each other, Albert Dixon was still her brother and no matter the time or distance, family is important.

Brandon Barrows
is the author of several novels, including THE LAST REQUEST published fall 2023 from Bloodhound Books. He has published over one-hundred published stories, mostly crime, mystery, and westerns. He is a three-time Mustang Award finalist and a 2022 Derringer Award nominee. Find more at and on Twitter @Brandon Barrows 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Twitch, fiction by Brandon Barrows

There was almost eleven-thousand dollars on the low-slung table in front of me. The neatly-banded blocks were all relatively small bills, none larger than a twenty, and were lined up straight and piled into little towers, organized by denomination. It looked like a city skyline in miniature. It was the most money I’d seen in a long time. It was mine—mine and the kid’s, rightfully—but I didn’t dare spend a dollar of it. It was too hot. But that wasn’t my fault. Not a bit.

I looked across the motel room at the kid, Dennis. His legs were pulled up to his chest, his arms wrapped around them. He talked to himself in a constant low drone. 

I realized I couldn’t remember his last name, just that it was different from his sister, Mattie’s. They had different dads, I remembered that much. None of it meant anything now, though. The only things that mattered were the blood splattered across the kid’s t-shirt, slowly turning brown as it dried, and what would happen next. I should never have let him have a gun. Mattie warned me that he was a little twitchy, but it didn’t make sense to go into the place with only one of us armed and he swore to me that he could handle it. Believing him was my first mistake.

My second mistake was letting the girl drive the car. She held up fine the two other times she drove for me, but that was with my old partner, Jake, and nothing ever went wrong with Jake Barsi around. God, I missed that big, stupid bastard. He was dumb as a post, but his nerves were rock-solid and he took directions well. Who could have guessed that he would end up in prison for not paying child support? All those years and I didn’t even know he had kids.

That left me in the lurch, though. Mattie wasn’t really a partner so much as a fill-in, and the kind of job I could do alone wasn’t worth even trying to pull off. Too much risk for too little pay-out. When Mattie suggested her brother as a new third, I said no way. She told me to just meet the kid, give him a chance. He was an amateur, with no more experience than nickel-and-dime stuff. Literally–he busted open vending machines, Mattie told me, going on about how clever he was. A little twitchy, a little weird maybe, but clever and eager to learn.

Nothing about what she said seemed clever to me. I read once that crime, when you broke it down year by year, was the lowest-paid “profession” on the planet. Risking two to three years for maybe a few dozen bucks stolen from a vending machine didn’t seem smart to me. That’s why I went for the big stuff, and before now, I never had much trouble. 

Maybe Jake was my good luck charm. Aside from a couple early jobs, he was my only partner and without him, I was seriously considering finding another line of work. But Mattie liked the excitement of being with an outlaw, pretending  as if  we were Bonnie and Clyde. She wouldn’t like the idea of my getting out of the racket. We’d also been balling long enough for me to know that she wouldn’t give up until I at least agreed to meet her brother, so I caved.

The kid was maybe twenty-three. He was small and wiry, with short, sandy hair and cheeks that looked like they never needed shaving. But he spoke well enough, and he had more or less the right answers to the questions I asked him. After a couple hours, I told him it was nice meeting him and that I’d let him know. When Mattie and I left, she wanted an answer. I told her I’d think about it and maybe we could try something if the right opportunity came along.

A few weeks later, it did. A buddy of mine told me about a check-cashing place, way on the other side of the state, where a friend of a friend used to work. This acquaintance got the can, doesn’t matter for what, and wanted a little revenge. He sold everything he knew about the place—its routine, its security, and so forth—to my buddy’s friend, who was willing to pass it along in exchange for a percentage. 

My buddy offered me the same deal and when I heard the details, I figured it sounded safe enough. Two employees, one manager-cashier and one guard, came in for pre-opening around seven in the morning, and then another cashier came in at eight to open the place. It stayed open until seven at night, Monday through Saturday, two cashiers and a guard on at any given time. On Friday mornings, they had an extra cashier because a lot of people got paid that day. They were flush with cash for the same reason. That came in Thursday afternoons.

The security sounded solid, but unexceptional. All electronic locks, the PIN for which would be changed whenever an employee left. Except there were manager’s master codes for both the doors and the safe which were never changed, cuz the guy worked there for years and thought nobody knew about them. At least three people knew them now and at least one of us was going to make use of that knowledge.

I told Mattie about it, giving her enough detail to let her know what was going on and that, if I thought Dennis was up for the challenge after talking to him again, I’d give him his chance. She was pretty pleased and I was happy with the way she proved it to me. They may only have been half-siblings, but she wanted good things for her little brother–better than robbing vending machines, anyway. 

So I agreed to bring the kid in, figuring this was probably the safest way I’d find to test him out. With the manager’s codes and only three people in the place, I almost figured Mattie and I could do it alone, but I didn’t like the idea of leaving an empty car running out back of the place. That would only draw attention. That, and Mattie never used a gun; she preferred to drive. She told me Dennis used to go plinking with his dad, so he knew the basics of firearms, at least. Since he really only needed to point a gun at a couple of people and make sure they stood still, it should be fine. Anybody could handle that much, she argued. I caved again.

The next Thursday afternoon, I got Mattie and her brother into the motel room I rented a day earlier. I outlined everything to them, all the details. The girl was excited, and Dennis pretended to be. It got into his nerves before I even finished talking. Mattie could tell it was bothering me, the way the kid was acting, but she took me aside, reminded me it was too late to back out and promised Dennis would be okay. “It’s just nerves. It’s his first time.”

“Sure,” I told her. “And what happens if he blows it all up in our faces?”

“He won’t.” She leaned up and kissed the side of my neck, the way she knew I liked. “Love me?”

I didn’t think I did, but I liked her well enough, and now wasn’t the time to argue the point. “Sure.”

“Then trust me, Paul. I know my brother. He’ll be fine.” She kissed me again, on the lips this time. She broke away and said, “And when it’s all over, when we’ve got the money, I’ll really show you how much I appreciate you giving him this chance, okay?”

“Yeah,” I said, trying to imagine it, but succeeding only in thinking about how everything could go wrong.

As bad as my imagination was, the reality was worse.

We waited until just after seven before barging into the back door of Cash Express. It opened into a counting room where a withered-looking little woman in a yellow and red polo-shirt with the chain’s logo embroidered on the sleeve was seated at a cramped desk, sneaking a smoke. The safe, a waist-high job bolted to the floor, was to her right. She turned left as we entered and her eyes went wide, stretching the folds of skin around them. But she didn’t say a word, just let the cigarette fall to the floor and raised her hands over her head. We were both old pros.

“Who else is in here?” I asked.

“Just Sunil, the other cashier, and Hank, the evening guard.”

“Get them in here.” I gestured with the .38 revolver in my fist.

The old woman went to the door and called out, “Sunil? Hank? Come back here a sec, will you?”

Behind me, I could feel the energy pouring off of Dennis. I risked a glance over my shoulder. He had his own gun, a .380 automatic Mattie got for him somewhere, clasped close to his chest. His knit ski-mask was identical to the black one I wore, except his was red and it was already showing darker spots on his forehead where the sweat was soaking through. I could practically hear his knees knocking together.

The old woman turned back to the room, nodded at me and stepped off to one side, pausing only to grind the cigarette into the floor before again raising her hands over her head. A moment later, a handsome, dark-skinned guy a little older than Dennis appeared in the doorway. His eyes met mine and went as wide as the old woman’s had, but he never got a chance to do anything else. A bam sounded right by my ear and then a bright-red spot appeared among the lively colors of the handsome kid’s shirt, dead-center on the heart. He fell to the floor without making a sound, collapsing face-first onto the linoleum. A pool of blood began to spread beneath him. 

The old woman screamed and made for the door, colliding with a middle-aged guy wearing a grey uniform coming from the other side. I turned to see Dennis holding the gun at arm’s length, his eyes huge and staring through the holes in his mask.

“You stupid fuck!” I spat as I made for the front of the room, leaping over the dead kid, avoiding the pooling blood. I slammed the door shut, wedged the desk-chair under the handle, and then turned to the safe in the corner.

My fingers were clumsy with nerves, anger, and adrenaline, but on the third try the manager’s code for the safe worked just as well as the one for the door had. I started shoveling banded bills into the plastic grocery bags I brought for that purpose. Every instinct told me to run, to cut my losses, but I’d be damned if I left empty-handed.

I threw another look at Dennis and saw the kid had pulled his mask off and was on his knees, leaning down over the guy he shot. The gun was on the floor nearby and he was trying to turn the other kid over. “What the hell are doing? Grab a bag!” 

Dennis shook his head. “He might still. . . I didn’t mean it! Maybe we can help him!”

“Too damned late! We got maybe thirty seconds before that guard thinks of the back door!”

I turned back to the safe. Two bags full of cash. I had two more, but decided not to press my luck. It’d be a miracle if we got out of here and another if we didn’t get picked up right off the bat. I should have listened to my gut and ignored Mattie’s arguments about her brother.

“Pick up that mask and gun,” I said, shoving a last packet of bills into the pocket of my jeans as I stood. The kid was motionless, just staring down at what he’d done.

“Get your god-damned shit together!” I shouted, leveling a kick at the kid’s ribs. It connected and seemed to jolt him back to himself. He looked at me, tears in his eyes, then snatched the mask and gun up, found his feet, and stumbled to the backdoor. 

That was when the shit really hit the fan. The alley was empty, except for a couple of dumpsters and the kind of crap that accumulates in alleys everywhere. No car. No Mattie. My heart jumped in my chest, the same way it did when Dennis fired the gun. My hand went to the burner in my back pocket, but that was no good. Even if Mattie answered, the cops would be there before a call could connect.

We were fucked, but there was no time to dwell on it – not unless I wanted nothing but time to think, sitting in a cell somewhere. I wasn’t going to let that happen, not if there was any way to avoid it.

“Run!” I told the kid, shifting the bags to my left hand and setting out at the kind of fast lope I learned as a cross-country runner in high-school. It was a long time since my school years, but I was still in reasonably good shape, and there wasn’t any other option. I could hear sirens not too far off.

Keeping to alleys as much as we could, somehow we found our way to the cross-street that connected with the highway where the motel was. We saw other people on foot and every once in a while, a passing police cruiser, but fortunately it was dark enough that nobody noticed Dennis’s shirt. 

It took maybe half an hour to reach the highway and two hours more, walking far off the edge of the road, to make it back to the motel. Every few minutes, I tried calling Mattie’s cellphone, but there was no answer. Along the way, I ditched the masks and Dennis’s gun in a foul-smelling slough a couple of miles from the motel. There was no reason for anyone to go in there and I hoped the smell would keep the stuff from being discovered any time soon. 

Dennis chattered the entire way, mouth moving a mile a minute, alternately making apologies to the kid he killed and worrying about the cops coming after him. Sometimes, it sounded like he thought they already had him and he was trying to explain what happened, as if that would do any good. More than once, I told him to shut the fuck up, but it was like he couldn’t even hear me. After a while, when we were out along the highway, I punched him squarely in the jaw out of sheer frustration, knocking him to the ground, but even that only quieted him down for a couple of minutes.

I was angry enough to shoot him, but I’d never killed anyone before and now wasn’t the time to start. Another body wouldn’t do anyone any good. More than ten years in this business, and I’d never had a job go so badly wrong. At least I knew what Dennis’s problem was–he was “a little twitchy.” That didn’t explain his sister leaving us high and dry. I’d give her a chance to explain, but who knew? I might still kill someone that night.

The moment we got into the motel room, I dropped the bags on the scarred coffee table and tried calling Mattie again. It began to ring–from the bathroom. She used it before we left and must have taken the phone out of her purse for some reason then forgotten it. That was just great. 

I spent over an hour stewing, counting the money, and listening to Dennis ramble--to himself, to a handsome dead kid, to imaginary cops. Mattie had my car and I had no way to contact her. Dennis had no change of clothes—my shirts would all be suspiciously big on him—and his face might well be on camera at the check-cashing place, so we couldn’t go far from the room. There wasn’t much we could do but wait and hope Mattie came back. 

After a while I started to calm down a little. Soothed by the sight and feel of all that money, my thoughts came together better. Things went just about as bad as they possibly could, but despite everything else, as long as Mattie didn’t get picked up and she came back before too long, I wanted to believe that we might still be okay. 

That stopped me. With what already happened, Mattie being picked up was a possibility I hadn’t even thought about before. When did she leave, exactly? When Dennis fired that shot? Or did something else spook her first? In all the confusion that was happening inside Cash Express, I had no clue what might have been happening outside. Maybe she knew something I didn’t. 

I was getting worried all over again and about something I had absolutely no control over. I stood up and began pacing the room, trying to think of something, some way forward, some path out of this fucking maze I was trapped in. My eyes fell on the piles of cash and I wanted to spit. All that money and it couldn’t do me any good–not until I was far, far away from this place.

I walked back and forth, trying to squeeze an idea out of my brain. I was drawing a blank. I grabbed up my jacket from the back of the chair by the door and said, “I’m going out.”

Dennis hadn’t really shut up in hours, no matter what I said or did to him. It was like he was in his own world. Now, finally, somehow I got through to him. “What?” His voice was small and lost-sounding.

“I’m going out.” I slipped my arms into the jacket.


There was a convenience store across the highway from the motel. There was really no place else to go and it was as good a destination as any. “Across the street. Gonna get something to eat. You want anything?”

Dennis shook his head, his eyes falling again to the table, to the money and my gun. I put it down the moment we got back to the room and I intended for it to stay there until we checked out. Unless you’re actively on a job, carrying a gun is stupid. In a lot of places, that’s inside time right there, even if the cops never connect you to anything else. So the gun stayed here, along with the cash and Dennis. I wasn’t too worried about that, anyway. I figured what happened tonight would turn him off guns, maybe permanently. 

Dennis tore his eyes from the table and looked up at me. His lips started moving again, but now, no sound came out. I went over to stand in front of him, but he wasn’t really seeing me anymore.

I said, “Maybe I can get you a shirt over there, too. You should get out of those clothes and take a shower.

The kid’s voice started getting louder, saying he was sorry over and over again.

“Hey,” I said. “Look at me.”

There was no answer except the chanted “sorrys”.

“Hey!” I clapped my hands right in his face.

Dennis jumped back so hard he half-turned over the chair he was in, setting it thumping back against the wall. If there were neighbors, they’d love that.

“Listen to me, you little fuck.”

Dennis finally looked at me again. There were tears in his eyes and his lips were still moving, but I knew he saw me.

“Don’t go anywhere, okay? And don’t open the door for anybody.”

“I can’t go to prison,” he half-whispered. He grabbed my arm and said, “You can’t let them take me. I didn’t mean it.” The tears were running down his cheeks now.

I sighed and pried his fingers from me. Part of me wanted to grab the bags and start walking up the highway just to get away from him. “It’s gonna be okay,” I said, not really sure if it was meant for his benefit or mine. I went out without waiting for him to respond. 

Across the highway, the lights from the convenience store were like an island of light in an ocean of darkness. I went inside and saw a dark-skinned guy, Indian or Pakistani maybe, behind a plexiglass-protected counter. I flashed on the kid Dennis killed and a little pang went through me. Nobody ever got hurt on any of my jobs before. This wasn’t my fault, but that didn’t really help. It wouldn’t fly with the cops if we got picked up, either. Either Mattie had to come back or I needed to find another way out of town.

“Evening,” the guy at the counter said. I nodded, grabbed a basket, and went around the store, gathering up snacks and drinks. I wanted a beer in the worst way, but I needed a clear head. 

Up by the register, there was a corner stuffed full of hats and t-shirts and hoodies, all with the logos of local sports teams. I picked up a shirt with a pair of stylized red socks on them and winced. The price-tag said forty-five bucks. Sometimes, the legal ways to rob someone seem more dishonest than just doing it with a gun. Gritting my teeth, I paid and got the hell out.

Outside, I stood for a moment under the night sky, wondering what was going to happen next. At the very edge of the parking lot, headlights flashed. I turned and after a few seconds, it happened again. All my senses went on high alert, but I forced myself to relax. Cops wouldn’t flash their lights at me, not headlights, anyway, and nobody knew I was here except Dennis. Was it possible the kid did something useful and found us a car?

I walked towards the car, just out of range of the sun-bright lights that splashed the tarmac around the gas-pumps. I recognized it as my own and when I was within ten feet, the window rolled down and Mattie’s voice said, “Paul! Paul!”

I kept my pace casual, pretending to be unsurprised, and angled towards the passenger side. I opened the door, slid into the car, grabbed her arm, and squeezed as hard as I could. “Where the fuck have you been?”

Mattie flinched. “I got scared. I heard the gunshot and just sort of took off. I went back, after, but there were cops all over the place. I didn’t know what to do so I just drove around and then kind of ended up here. Are you okay? Where’s Dennis?”

I let my grip loosen. “At the motel and no, I’m not o-fucking-kay. Things were going fine until your dipshit brother randomly started shooting.”

“Oh shit. . . ” she whispered.

“He killed a kid.” 

My hand fell away from Mattie’s arm, but then her hand found mine in the semi-darkness. She squeezed gently and said, “I’m sorry. I really am. But I never been so close to a gunshot before and all this crap started popping into my head and I got scared. That never happened to me before. Everything worked so smooth the other times.”

“That’s because Jake was with us.” 

We were both silent a moment, then Mattie asked, “You got the money?”

“I got some money.” 

I shook off her grasp, but her hand was persistent and found my thigh. “Dennis is okay?” she asked.

“I guess. . .” He was definitely not okay, but there wasn’t a thing either of us could do to help. 

“Cops didn’t see you, obviously.”

“Not me, no. I got no idea who might have seen your brother. The little fucker took his mask off and actually tried to help the kid he shot. His face is probably on video.” I turned to her. “You swore to me he’d be okay.”

Mattie’s hand roamed across my lap. “I was wrong. . . I’m sorry. I really thought he’d get over the nerves. But it’s all gonna be fine, right? Nobody knows us around here and we got the money. We just gotta get out of the area.”

I moved her hand away from my crotch. “Let’s go. We’ll talk about it later.”

“We got a little time, don’t we?”

I turned and in the light that reached the car, I saw she was giving me a puppy-dog look, the kind she always used when she wanted to make extra nice.

“Paul. . . I told you I’d show you how much I appreciate you giving my brother a chance, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, but—”

“And I wanna show you how sorry I am. I was so scared something was gonna happen to you. We got a little time, don’t we?” she asked again.

Again, I ignored my instincts, and admitted we did. Mattie’s hand was in my lap again, fiddling with my zipper now, and a moment later, her head followed.

When we were done, we switched seats. I started the engine and drove across to the motel. I parked the car in front of the room. The lights were out inside. Maybe Dennis finally went to bed. It would do him some good, if so. I could use some sleep myself, for that matter. 

I said to Mattie, “I wanna get out of here, but we better stay ‘til check out in the morning. Look bad if we just disappear.”

“Sure, if you say so, Paul.”

I pulled her to me and kissed her forehead. Despite myself, I tried to forgive her for screwing me and her brother over by disappearing. I wasn’t the type to forgive easily, but I did a lot of thinking while Mattie was hard at work proving how sorry she was. I decided that, aside from the handsome, dark-skinned kid’s death, the plan wasn’t really that changed. I felt bad about that kid, but I didn’t pull the trigger and getting caught wouldn’t bring him back to life. Maybe there was a way to give Dennis up without getting myself arrested, but Mattie would never forgive me and she knew too much about me and my life to risk pissing her off and then cutting her loose. There was no way I was ever working with her brother again, but that was a discussion for another day.

“Before we go in, just a word of warning. . .  your brother’s not okay. He’s kind of messed up over what happened. He’s been rambling about how sorry he is and shit like that.” 

Worry flashed across Mattie’s face, but she just nodded. We both got out of the car. Mattie grabbed the bag from the convenience store without my even asking. She really was eager to be forgiven.

I looked up at the sky again. I had a good chunk of money, I had the car and my girl back, and nobody saw my face. Things would work out okay as long as we kept a leash on Dennis.

At the door of the room, I turned to the girl and said, “Shooting that clerk really screwed with his head. Just give him the kid gloves, okay?”

“Okay,” she said. 

I put the key in the lock, but it wouldn’t turn. The key fit fine, but it was like something was holding it in place, keeping the cylinder from turning. “Son of a bitch. What now?”

“What’s wrong?” Mattie asked.

“The god-damned key.”

I jiggled the key and it shifted a little. I thought I heard something move inside the room, but I wasn’t sure. Something like hurried footsteps. Mattie looked at me; she heard it, too. “Dennis?” she called softly. 

There was no answer, though, and the sound wasn’t repeated, so I twisted the key again. Finally, it gave with a small, metallic sound and the lock turned. Mattie flashed a sheepish grin. “Some night, huh?”

I opened the door, and gestured for Mattie to go ahead of me. The room was dark when I opened the door, but it was immediately lit up by an explosion of light and sound. Mattie screamed and fell backwards, the bag flying from her hand and blood spewing from her neck. Before I had a chance to understand what I was seeing, a giant fist punched me high on the side of the head and I joined her on the concrete curtain of the parking lot. 

“I won’t go!” Dennis screamed, his voice just barely audible over the sound of repeated gunshots. “You can’t take me! I didn’t mean it! It wasn’t my fault! I won’t go!”

I fell on my side, Mattie directly in front of me. As my vision went dim, she stopped thrashing and lay still. 

The sound of a hammer clicking on empty chambers and Dennis screaming began to fade out, like I was moving away from him, down a long padded hallway that absorbed all sound. 

I tried to push myself up, but my arms and legs ignored me as ice began to spread through my body. Every instinct I’d been ignoring for days was screaming at me again, mocking me now. A little voice in my head sneered, “Just a little twitchy.”

Then everything was black and quiet and none of it mattered anymore.

Brandon Barrows is the author of the novels BURN ME OUT, THIS ROUGH OLD WORLD, and NERVOSA, as well as over fifty published stories, selected of which have been collected into the books THE ALTAR IN THE HILLS and THE CASTLE-TOWN TRAGEDY. He is an active member of Private Eye Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.

Find him on @BrandonBarrows and at

Monday, August 5, 2019

Above Water, fiction by Brandon Barrows

The sky roiled. Heavy, low-hanging clouds hid the setting sun so completely it might as well have been night already. Morgan downshifted, the decrepit Camaro’s gearbox protesting the sudden change, as he took the tight turn onto the long, narrow, pitted dirt road that served as his Uncle Mike’s driveway.

He brought the car to a stop in front of the rusty, once-blue trailer, surprised to see there were no lights on inside. He’d expected to find the old man either preparing supper or already eating it. The Camaro’s struggling engine died, making the area eerily quiet for a moment. As he climbed out of the car, a raspy shout broke the silence. “Out back, whoever ya are!”

It was Mike’s voice. Head swiveling, searching for the source, the young man’s heart started to beat faster, a mixture of apprehension, fear, anger and more than a little shame coursing through his veins. He didn’t really want to see his uncle. It wasn’t that he disliked the man; he didn’t feel like he knew Mike Hughes well enough to like or dislike him. Aside from a few, rare childhood encounters, he’d really only met Mike the year before. What he hated was that he had nowhere else to turn, that he’d been reduced to begging. Again. He couldn’t let those feelings show, though.

A moment or two passed and then Mike came trundling around the side of the trailer, squinting against the gloom. “Who’s ‘at?”

“It’s me, Uncle Mike. Morgan.”

“Oh, hello there, son.” He approached, stuck out his hand for a shake. It always struck Morgan as odd, a little uncomfortable, having his uncle call him that. He’d never known his father and it was too late for Mike to take his place. With his mother’s passing the year before, though, Mike was the only family he had left so he guessed it didn’t matter what the older man called him.

Morgan shook his uncle’s hand, feeling the coarse skin stretched tight over fragile-seeming bones. He was suddenly acutely aware that it would be Mike’s seventy-third birthday in a few weeks. Something like jagged little fingers flicked at his insides. “How you doing, Uncle Mike?”

“Lousy,” the other man said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “Damned well’s stopped up. Hope to god I don’t need to get someone from town out here. Lord knows what that’ll cost to fix.” He shook his head, the sparse white strands that clung to his pink-skinned skull bouncing back and forth. “Suppose you got money trouble again?”

The words ripped right through to Morgan’s core. Having his uncle see through him like that hurt. It was also a sort of relief, though, Mike bringing it up first. “Not trouble, exactly…” He hesitated. “I could use another loan, though, Uncle Mike. Just to help me get a few things squared away. You know, keep my head above water.”

Mike snorted. “It’s only a loan if you pay it back, son. This would be the fourth, as I recall.” He turned on his heel, headed towards the trailer. “C’mon inside and we’ll at least have some supper since you’re here.”

The rain the sky had been promising all day began to fall. Morgan followed his uncle into the trailer house.


Nothing more was said of the money until after they’d eaten a sparse meal of kielbasa and beans. Hardly anything at all was said, in fact. Mike tried a little football talk, but Morgan didn’t follow the sport and the older man gave up, lapsing into silence.

When nothing was left but dirty dishes and scraps, Morgan finally said, “Tell you the truth, Uncle Mike, I am in trouble. I’ve gotten in with some folks who ain’t very nice.” He swallowed around a lump in his throat. “Or patient.”

The set of Mike’s jaw hardened, the stubbled chin jutting out a little. “Gambling again?”

Not trusting words, Morgan only nodded.

Mike stood, tall and thin. He went to the window and threw it open, letting in the cool, moist evening air. The light from the window danced on the shifting water droplets clinging to Morgan’s car, parked on the bare earth in front of the trailer. Somewhere nearby, a night-bird screeched its displeasure at the storm.

There was trouble in the man’s eyes when he turned back towards his nephew. “How much?”

Hope surged in Morgan’s chest. “Twenty-five hundred.” That wasn’t even half of it, but it would get Carson off his back for a while, give him time to figure something out.

Mike lowered his gaze, shaking his head. “Can’t do it, son. I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”

Black anger washed over Morgan, smothering the little flicker of hope he’d felt a moment ago. He grit his teeth. “Uncle Mike—”

Head still wobbling back and forth, Mike said, “Morgan, keep in mind that I’m on a fixed income and I’ve already ‘loaned’ you at least that much. I worked hard all my life and I ain’t rich. I can’t drown myself keeping your head above water. I can’t give you no more ‘til you pay back what you owe.”

The younger man struggled to tamp down the anger, burning like acid in his guts. Mike just didn’t get it. He had to make his uncle understand. Morgan’s mouth began to move rapidly, the words falling off his tongue, tumbling over his lips. Almost babbling, he told Mike about the dog fighting, the huge bets that he couldn’t cover, how strangers had been hanging around his house. He didn’t mention the beating he’d taken a week ago, the cracked ribs that still ached, or the little Smith and Wesson revolver he’d taken to carrying, stuffed into the waistband of his pants. That, and the tiny, ramshackle house he’d grown up in, were the only things of his mom’s left that he hadn’t yet sold, trying to raise enough money to appease Carson’s thugs. He’d had to slip out of his own home in secret just to come see Mike and even then, he wasn’t sure he hadn’t been noticed. He didn’t dare go back without something to give them.

Mike looked long and hard at his nephew. The face staring back at him looked too much like his younger sister’s. He turned away, wishing he had a better answer for the boy. “I can’t do it, Morgan. I’m sorry.”

“God damn it!” Angry, scared, desperate, Morgan leapt from his chair, bumping the rickety old table, upsetting the dishes with a clatter. “Don’t you get it? They’re going to kill me! I can’t go back without—”

“Then don’t.” The older man’s eyes became watery as he stared out the open window. “You’re welcome to stay here, long as you need to. I’ll put you to work. Plenty to do around here.”

Morgan’s mouth twisted into a look of disgust. “Live in this shithole, in the middle of nowhere? You’ve gotta be kidding.”

The older man’s anger stirred, but it was a weary sort of anger. He felt very old as he swiveled back towards Morgan. “It ain’t the middle of nowhere… it’s less’n eight miles from town and I happen to like it. I got my privacy and I got friends nearby.” His eyes strayed to the clock above the door. “In fact—"

“I don’t care!” Morgan roared, unable to hold back any longer. He’d have that money if it killed him because not having it would kill him for sure. “This is my life, you penny-pinching old bastard! Don’t you understand? I’m—”

Frayed patience snapped. “Not getting one red damned cent ‘til I die!” Mike yelled back. “Then it’s all yours, but until then, I’m through! You hear me?” He could hardly believe the nerve of the boy, begging from one side of his mouth and insulting from the other. No, not the boy – the man, he corrected himself. Despite how Morgan acted, it had been years since he could rightfully have been called a boy.

And Mike had finally had enough of him.

He regretted not being closer with Myrna and her son until it was too late, until his sister got the news that she was terminal. Exhaustion, overworking herself for long years after she should have been taking it easy, all to support her son, to get him out of innumerable ‘scrapes’ as she called them, may not have killed her, but he knew it hadn’t helped, either. The thought of it, the memory of the wasted shell Myrna had become, and how he’d never known until they had no one else to turn to, saddened and infuriated him. Despite those feelings, he’d made a mighty effort in those last few months, and the time since, and he’d come to love Morgan in a way – the way you still love a troublesome child you feel you’ve somehow failed. Morgan wasn’t Mike’s failure, exactly, but he couldn’t help how he felt.

Love didn’t mean breaking yourself, though. It was time for a hard lesson.

“You’re a grown man, Morgan. Your mama’s in an early grave but I won’t let you do the same to me. You climb into that rattle-trap of yours—” he thrust a skinny arm towards Morgan’s Camaro, outside the still-open window, “and don’t you never let me see your face again unless it’s purely social. I hear one more word from you about money and I’ll—”

Black anger turned suddenly red and an inarticulate scream ripped from Morgan’s throat. Before he knew what was happening, he was on the old man, the little revolver in his hand and pressed to his uncle’s temple. He jerked the trigger once, twice and then dropped the weapon, the horror of what he’d done coming down on him all at once. Uncle Mike stood a moment, as if paralyzed, a look of shocked disbelief on his face, and then he crumpled like a string-cut puppet. He fell to his side, spasmed, flopped over onto his back and then was still. Thick, dark blood seeped from his ruined head, pooling on the peeling laminate of the floor.

Morgan screamed and collapsed to his knees, his pulse thundering in his ears, his heart slamming into his rib-cage so hard it hurt. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath and he felt like vomiting. He didn’t know how long he stayed there, staring at the thing that had been his uncle. Minutes, hours, days for all he knew, passed, until finally his pulse slowed, his chest stopped hurting and his lungs filled normally. He rose slowly, his eyes still glued to Mike’s body and the irregularly-shaped oval of red beneath his head, like a bloody halo.

He felt like he should say something, like something needed to be said. He took a deep breath. It came out as: “Serves him right, the old cheap-ass.” He surprised himself. Was that how he really felt? Had part of him been planning this all along? He shook his head. It didn’t matter now. It wasn’t like he could take back what he’d done.

“Yeah…” he said, half-aloud. “I had to.” Mike was an old man, one foot in the grave already. And he’d given Morgan the idea after all. Not one red damned cent ‘til I die, Mike had said. Money was no good if you didn’t use it and Morgan had serious use for it. It was Mike’s life in exchange for Morgan’s. That seemed like a fair trade. How much longer could the old man have lived, anyway? Morgan had his whole life ahead of him.

He did now, at least. Wouldn’t Carson be surprised when he paid off in full? It’d be nice to finally have a little peace of mind. He laughed out loud at the thought.

His train of thought derailed suddenly, snapping him back to the present like someone had flipped a switch. Something had caught his attention, though he wasn’t sure what. He stood listening. The gun hadn’t been very loud and Mike’s trailer was in the middle of nowhere, but Morgan wasn’t sure if there were any neighbors on the other side of the patch of woods that the property abutted. He realized, too, as he stood listening, that he was somehow clutching the gun again. Wouldn’t that be fine, if someone investigating the noise showed up and found him standing over the body, gun in hand? He shook his head at his own foolishness. Maybe Mike was right, maybe he did need to grow up a little, think things through a little more. Maybe—

No, no time for that. He stuck the already-cool gun back into the waistband of his pants. He moved to the cramped bedroom of the little trailer, opened the door of the shallow closet and took from it the battered old cigar box where, he knew, Mike kept his cash. The old man didn’t trust banks, he’d said once, liked to keep everything he owned where he knew he could get his hands on it. That was perfect for Morgan.

He opened the box and let out a gasp. It was empty – no, not empty. Morgan tilted it into the harsh light of the bare bulb overhead and saw, lying flat against the bottom, a leather booklet, long and thin. He plucked the thing out, tossing the box onto the unmade bed, and opened it. It was a bank book. Morgan’s jaw fell open. There was a tightly scrawled line of text across the top of the ledger: “DEPOSIT - $7,133.” It was dated just over a week earlier.

Morgan dropped the booklet. He licked dry lips then let out a little chuckle of disbelief. “That old bastard…” He’d banked the money, put it where Morgan couldn’t touch it. Had he seen this coming somehow?

Morgan laughed again, but it was hollow. It sounded almost like a sob.

He collapsed on the edge of the bed. His thoughts raced. What now? He couldn’t go home, not empty-handed. He sure as hell couldn’t stay here. His eyes fell to the bank book, on the floor near his feet. Over seven grand, everything Mike had in the world.

Everything Mike had.

It was all his now, Morgan realized. Mike had said it himself, it’d be Morgan’s when he died. Something clicked in his head. He began to feel better. Sure, it’d take a while to get his hands on it, but the money was his now, wasn’t it? He was Mike’s only family, after all. Carson would get his money, just as soon as Morgan got it. If he knew it was coming, Carson would wait, wouldn’t he?

And the money wasn’t all, either.

Morgan stood, looked around. The trailer was a shithole, but Mike had owned the land it was on. Selling it would bring in a nice chunk, for sure. He’d be set for a while. And with both his mom and Mike gone, why even stick around? He could sell the house, too. It wasn’t much better than the trailer, but it was worth something. With that kind of money, for the first time in his life, he could make plans. Get out of this hick country, get out of the state entirely, even. Maybe go north, to Pittsburgh. He loved that damned city – the bright lights, the clubs, the stylish women. It’d be nice to go and know you had enough to make more than a night or two of it. Hell, if he was going to a city, maybe he’d just keep going, head all the way to New York. He’d always wanted to see if it lived up to the hype. And why not?

A sudden splatter of rain against the bedroom window drew him back to the moment. The return to reality cooled his enthusiasm. Before he could make any plans, he had to have the money and to get it, he had to make sure he wasn’t caught. For a few minutes, he’d let himself forget what he’d done. That was dangerous. Even he knew that much.

He racked his brains. First, he should get rid of the gun. That was for certain. Then what? Maybe the best thing to do was go home and wait for someone, the police or whoever, to tell him that Mike was dead. He frowned. No, that wouldn’t work. He’d stopped at the Wawa by the crossroads and put a couple of bucks’ worth of gas in the Camaro. The clerk had tried to make conversation, but Morgan wasn’t in the mood and had brushed him off. The guy might remember that and even if he didn’t, there was probably security footage of Morgan.

No, he’d be better off reporting Mike’s death himself. He’d get rid of the gun then call the police, say he’d found his uncle dead. The cops would probably suspect him, but without the gun, what could they do? He’d seen enough television to know how important the murder weapon was. Without it, all they could they do was suspect and, when all was said and done, hand him the money.

But he was getting ahead of himself again. He needed to get rid of the gun before anything else.

Mike had mentioned that the well was giving him problems. Morgan decided that it might just be the solution to his.

He left the bedroom, went down the trailer’s narrow hallway, through the living room, out the back door, flicking on the outside light as he did. In the darkness and the rain, he found his way to the tiny well shed. In the scant light that reached the shed, Morgan saw that the cap was off the well and a small pile of tools was scattered around the base of the housing. Morgan peered down into a pitch-black hole, six or eight inches wide. He saw nothing, but didn’t expect to. He had no idea how deep the well might be, but it didn’t matter – it was deep enough for his purposes. He pulled the gun from his waistband, allowing himself a tinge of relief that it would soon be over. He took one last look at the thing that had changed his life, and tossed it down the hole. It banged and scraped off the sides once, twice, then landed somewhere below with the faintest splash.

The rain was coming harder as he tromped back towards the trailer and by the time he reached the rear door, he was soaked. When he tried the door, it would not open. Panic gripped him. When he’d left the trailer, he’d simply let it swing shut behind him. It had never occurred to him to check whether it was locked. Now, he was locked outside and Mike was still inside. . .

Calm down, he told himself. Front’s still open. He made his way around the side of the trailer, following the path Mike must have when Morgan had arrived. He rounded the corner, walked the narrow space between the house and where Mike’s battered Ranger was parked, then froze. Distant sounds, muffled by the storm but recognizable, stopped him. A car was coming down Mike’s road, approaching rapidly.

“Shit!” He hunkered down in the darkness beside the bulk of Mike’s truck, fresh fear soaking his brain. The road wasn’t long. Whoever was coming would be here any second.

Before he could think of anything, a splash of headlights swept across the front of the Ranger, hurling shadows over Morgan’s head. An instant later, tires rasped to a stop on the wet dirt and gravel.

What now? Had he been seen? If he hadn’t, there was still a chance, but he couldn’t let them find him first. Crouching in the rain and darkness would look guilty as hell.

He stood, pushed his way through the night towards the front of the trailer and the newcomer.

From the cab of a big F250 came: “Mike? That you?”

Morgan knew that voice. Wade Linklater, one of Mike’s town friends.

A second voice added, “Mr. Hughes?” That one Morgan didn’t know.

He stepped out of the shadows that clung to the side of the house. “Mr. Linklater? It’s, it’s me – Morgan Hughes. Uncle Mike… Uncle Mike’s been,” he choked on the last word, “killed.”

“What?” Linklater shouted, hopping down from his rig. Over his shoulder, to whoever remained in the truck, he called, “I knew something was wrong when Mike didn’t show at the rec center. In eleven years, he’s never missed Wednesday night poker.” He crossed the distance to Morgan. He was a big, stern-faced man, not as old as Mike, but with decades on Morgan. “When I called and he didn’t answer, I was afraid he’d collapsed again, had another one of his episodes. Figured we better get out here, but I never imagine. . .”

Called. That was it, Morgan realized. What had brought him out of his earlier daze: the ringing telephone. He’d been too stunned then to even realize what he’d heard. Shit. Linklater was saying, “What did you mean ‘killed,’ Hughes? What the hell’s happened here?” He spoke with an air of authority that reminded Morgan of something he couldn’t quite grab hold of.

Morgan kept silent. He’d planned to report Mike’s death himself, get it out of the way, but everything had happened so quickly, he hadn’t even thought of a story to tell. Now, it was too late. He didn’t know his uncle had a regular card game or friends who’d come looking for him if he missed it. He didn’t know anything about the ‘episodes’ Linklater had mentioned. The information was no good to him now. All he could do was brazen this out.

“I, I, I—” he stammered.

“Let’s not stand out here in the rain, Wade. Won’t do us or Mike any good,” the second voice said, climbing down from the truck. In the light of the headlamps, Morgan saw he was a small, neatly-dressed man wearing rimless spectacles. A compact, black bag was clutched in his hand. “C’mon inside.”

The little man led the way into the trailer. Linklater followed ponderously. When Morgan stepped inside after them, he saw the stranger staring down at Mike’s body with a critical eye. Linklater, too, was staring but his face was angry and his lips moved soundlessly, as if the words couldn’t find their way out.

The stranger spoke: “Well. . .cause of death certainly isn’t in doubt.” He sighed.

Linklater nodded, turned towards Morgan. “What happened here?” The voice was like steel. Morgan felt compelled to obey it. What he’d forgotten about Linklater came to him then: the man was a retired sheriff’s deputy.

“I was coming to visit Uncle Mike,” he began, piecing the words together as they came to him. The story had to be believable, but vague enough to be difficult to prove one way or another. “I heard shots, right before I got up to the house. I mean, I thought I did. I couldn’t be sure with this storm.” He swallowed, ran his tongue across his lips. The other men’s eyes bore into him like hot irons. “I found Uncle Mike like this, and I thought I heard the back door, the one off the living room, open so I ran out that way, trying to catch whoever’d shot Mike, but I lost him in the dark, I guess. When I came back, the door was locked, so I had to come around the side and then you all were here.”

“How long ago was all this?” Linklater asked.

Morgan thought. What was safe? He couldn’t tell the truth. “Twenty minutes, maybe half an hour, I guess. I, I wasn’t looking at the clock or anything.”

Linklater looked at him long and hard, his gray eyes peering out from beneath furrowed brows. “And you weren’t, by any chance, the one who ate supper with Mike, were you?” He gestured towards the table and the remains of their meal.

Keeping the panic from his face was difficult, but Morgan managed. He hadn’t even thought about supper! His fingerprints would be all over the cutlery and the can of Coors he’d drank. How to explain that if he’d just shown up?

“I… I didn’t want to mention it, but when I showed up, I’d driven straight from home—it’s more than thirty miles—and I was starving, and there was still some of the food left out on the table so, I—”

The smaller of the two men spoke up, “So you sat down and ate dinner with your uncle’s body lying on the floor a few feet away?” Disbelief was evident in every syllable.

Linklater glanced from Morgan to the other man, said, “How long has Mike been gone, doc?”

Doc? Morgan thought with a start. His eyes fell again to the black bag the man carried. A sick feeling spread through his belly.

The man called “doc” knelt, pressed his fingers to Mike’s neck, to his wrist. He held a palm over the dead man’s mouth and then pressed it to Mike’s forehead. He stood, shaking his head. “He’s still pretty warm. Half an hour, I’d say. Maybe as little as fifteen minutes.”

“I heard the shots!” Morgan cried, unable to stop himself. “I told you that, I told you when it happened. I—”

Linklater looked like he wanted to spit. “And I heard you say it. Doesn’t mean I believe you.” He turned to the third man, “Ben, get on the phone to county dispatch. I’d love to deal with this myself, but. . .” He didn’t finish. He didn’t have to; the look in his eye said it all. “And you,” he turned back towards Morgan, “Sit down and stay put.”

The fear and anger in Morgan exploded. He screamed, “You think I did it? Killed the only family I got?” Spittle flew from his mouth. “You’re crazy! Tell me how I did it, then? He was shot! So where’s the gun, huh?”

Linklater pushed him backward towards the chair he’d sat in while he’d eaten with Mike. Had that really been less than an hour ago?

“Sure,” Linklater said. “I’m the crazy one.” Powerful hands forced Morgan into the chair and then moved over his body with practiced, searching movements. “No gun on him. What do you bet that’s what he was taking care of when we showed up?”

Ben only shook his head sadly as he moved towards the telephone on the kitchen counter.

A frantic minute passed. Ben spoke on the phone in quiet tones. Linklater’s eyes scanned the room, but always came back to rest on Morgan.

Morgan’s heart felt like it was going to burst. His chances of escape were zero. Less than zero. If he ran, Linklater would be on him before he reached the door. And even if he did escape, where could he go? Carson was waiting back home and he had no way of going anywhere else. Hell, there wasn’t even enough gas in the Camaro to go more than forty miles, maybe. All he could do was stick to his story. It wasn’t a good one, but he’d covered all the bases, right? And the gun was gone. That was the important thing.

“All right, see you soon.” The phone was hung up. To Linklater, Ben said, “Deputies’ll be here shortly.” He threw a meaningful glance at Morgan. “They’ll get this sorted.”

“It’s already sorted,” Linklater said.

Morgan shook his head. “This is crazy. I just—”

“Convicted yourself, whether you realize it or not. I don’t know why you did it, but you’ve as good as confessed already. Get up.” He grabbed Morgan’s arm and jerked him to his feet.

“What are you—?”

“Shut up,” the former deputy snarled. “Come outside.”

Morgan’s knees wobbled and he stumbled. Linklater all but dragged him out of the front door of the trailer. It was getting hard to breath.

Something in Linklater’s tone sent tendrils of ice down Morgan’s spine, terrifying him more than anything else had so far. Had he missed something? No. It was impossible. He’d covered every angle. He’d admitted nothing. This was just a tough old man, angry at the death of his friend, trying to shake something loose. He couldn’t prove anything. All he could do was suspect and bully and try to trick Morgan into slipping up.

Outside, the rain had slackened, but showed no signs of stopping. The bare dirt and gravel in front of the trailer was soaked and muddy, and dozens of tiny puddles shone in the light spilling out of the open door and window. Linklater, still gripping Morgan’s arm tightly, stopped just past the trailer’s steps. Ben stepped down beside them, as curious as Morgan was afraid.

Linklater pointed. “Right there, smart guy.” Morgan thought Linklater was pointing at the Camaro. It stood right where he’d left it, dripping with rain and shining in the light from the house. He couldn’t see anything wrong, didn’t understand what Linklater was getting at. Ben took a step forward, tilted his head and gave out a little cry of realization.

Morgan looked from the car to Linklater, then to the other man. The fear was on his face now. What had he missed? What was it that Linklater had found? If he didn’t know, he couldn’t explain it away, he couldn’t—

Linklater said, “You told us you’ve been here half an hour, but it’s been raining more than an hour already. The ground is soaked, there’s puddles everywhere, and yet—” The big man shook Morgan like a rag-doll. “Look, you murdering little shit! Look under the car!”

Morgan looked and his legs went limp. Linklater released his grip at last and Morgan fell backwards into a mud puddle. They were everywhere – except beneath the car. Underneath the Camaro was a rectangle of gravel, dry and grayish-white, protected since before the storm hit. An area just about the size of a jail-cell’s door – or a freshly-dug grave.

The pain in his chest seemed to explode and grow outward, touching every nerve in his body. It felt like drowning.

Brandon Barrows is the award-nominated author of the occult-noir novel THIS ROUGH OLD WORLD as well as over fifty published stories, selected of which have been collected into the books THE ALTAR IN THE HILLS and THE CASTLE-TOWN TRAGEDY. He is also the writer of nearly one-hundred individual comic book issues. Find more at and on Twitter @BrandonBarrows.