Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Monday, May 4, 2020

Paper Boats, fiction by Paul J. Garth



reprinted from The Desperate and the Damned


They had only been gone a few hours, just long enough to see a movie and pick up some food for the kid, but somehow that’d been long enough for Taylor Olsen to die, the boy still strapped to the metal folding chair Neil had tied him to before they left, his face blue, his little clenched mouth filled with vomit.
 
Neil stood there, refusing to go any further into the small bedroom they’d kept the kid stored in, his back pushed against the doorframe, the circuits of his brain suddenly overloaded. Acid surged in his throat. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” he asked. “God, he’s dead, isn’t he?”

A dizziness had fallen over him, throwing the world out of tilt, and in that sudden vertigo he had felt something fall away inside of himself, something almost physical. His hands had gone clammy and he ran them down the curve of his belly, searching. It was as though there had been a great fundamental piece of himself that’d been suddenly sheared away, swallowed by an invisible abscess. Sweat burst across his brow and he became obsessed with the idea that if he could somehow make the kid alive again, the new and sucking abscess he felt inside himself would close.

He fought to breathe.

“Yeah,” Rex said. He stood stopped in front of the body, turned back, holding Neil’s eyes, watching Neil’s panic crest like a wave. His face was smooth, his voice calming, unflappable. “He’s dead, but Jesus, you’ve got to relax, man. It’s not ideal, but it’s fine. Nothing has changed. They don’t know. They’re still gonna drop the cash.”

“But they’re not going to get the kid back.” It came out sounding more like a question than a statement, as though there was still a possibility, a chance, that somehow Taylor’s parents would get the kid back. He swallowed, his words hanging in the air, his tongue thick in his mouth and swollen as though with salt, like a man gone overboard. He was on the verge of tears. Of tearing out his own hair. Of going to the back of the house and pulling out the shotgun he knew Rex kept on the top shelf of the closet and putting both barrels in his mouth. “I can’t believe I let you to talk me in to this.”
 
They’d been in the back of a darkened bar when they first worked the outline of the plan, drunk on cheap beer and resentment. “No one will get hurt,” Rex had promised. “And with the money, when we’re settled, you can send for Meredith if you want. You can try again. This kid can be your shot.”
 
Neil nodded along, the taste of bitter anger and aged yeast in the back of his throat. He was unsure of what Rex was saying, but even more unsure of the remaining paths his life had left to explore, and in his anger, the plan made a certain kind of sense. It wasn’t that he couldn’t get another job. It wasn’t even that they’d been laid off - it was winter, and work had slowed to a trickle anyway. It was the way he’d been treated that pissed Neil off. It was that Mr. Olsen, who’d known all about Neil’s troubles, who’d had a man to man discussion with Neil after he’d had to call in several times the year before, had still somehow not seen him as a person, but instead as a figure to be removed from a spreadsheet. It would be a victimless crime. Not even a crime, but an investment in his future, in a chance to rebuild his life. The fact that the funds would be provided by the man who had only pretended to care about Neil’s life, right before kicking the last leg of stability out from underneath him, was too perfect to ignore. “Yeah,” Neil had said, sloshing his pint glass towards the water damaged ceiling. “Let’s goddamn do it.”
     
Three weeks later, they grabbed Taylor from the lobby of a suburban megachurch while the boy waited for his mother to pick him up from Wednesday night youth group. They wore masks, just in case the boy had seen them before while visiting worksites with his dad.
 
Neil spent the entire drive back to Rex’s house promising Taylor that he would be okay, that they weren’t going to hurt him, that none of this was his fault. “We’re just going to have a talk with your dad,” Neil told the boy. “And then you’ll see him and your mom right after. It’ll be like a camping trip. Like a dream you had once, but won’t remember later.”
     
And now this. A dead child tied to a chair and a rotting emptiness swirling inside of him.
 
Neil moved to the body, snowpack flecking off his boots. With a hesitant finger, he reached out and poked the little knees strapped together underneath the chinos, half expecting them to still kick. When they didn’t fresh bile rose in his throat.
 
“Dude, would you fucking stop it?” Rex grabbed Neil by the shoulder and dragged him back towards the door. “Would you just stay fucking put?”
 
“But they’re not going to get him back,” Neil said again, his voice breaking. His vision tunneled. His hands clasped and unclasped mindlessly. The abscess spun deeper and darker inside of his gut and blood roared in his ears. He couldn’t understand how Rex wasn’t as close to coming undone as he was, why Rex didn’t seem able to grasp how fucked they were. A kid was dead. His parent’s weren’t going to get him back. That wasn’t the kind of thing you could walk away from. That wasn’t the kind of thing that could be undone. “There’s no way for us to give him back.”
 
“God damn it, they don’t know that, though. They won’t know until after. And by then, we’re going to be off, living another life far the fuck away from them and from here.” There was anger in Rex’s face, but his voice remained calm, sure of the situation. Rex let go of Neil’s shirt, then went back to Taylor. He reached down and pried the boy’s little mouth open. Vomit, dried and flaky, fell out over Taylor’s baby teeth and into the lap of his little chinos. “I just don’t get how it happened, that’s all,” he said.
 
Neil began to pace. The smell of the fish sticks and greasy tartar sauce hung in the room, mixing with the tangy scent of the dead kid’s vomit until Neil thought he was going to be sick himself. He remembered Meredith then, how when she'd been pregnant she’d vomited almost the entire time. How, eventually, he’d gotten used to the smell as he sat on the bathroom floor next to her, rubbing her back. Neil held the memory, allowed it to buoy him, until finally the hole he’d felt inside himself seemed further away. “They’re calling soon,” he said. “Like two hours. What the hell are we going to say if they want to speak to him?”
 
Rex went to a dresser that stood along the far wall of the room. “We tell them no deal. They talked to him yesterday. And if they drop the money, they’ll see him tonight. Make it threatening.” He pulled a blanket from the dresser, a child’s blanket, one with tattered, worn, edges and white Nebraska football helmets on it. “You know Olsen, he’s a pussy. Won’t risk anything. If they did call the cops, that oughta call them right the fuck off.”
 
The football helmets on the blanket reminded Neil of something he had half known and ignored those nights they’d spent drinking and planning the abduction of Taylor Olsen. “Shit.” His voice came out flat, monotone. “They brought back the death penalty here. If they find us, they’ll kill us.”
 
Rex laid the blanket on the bed, then moved behind the folding chair Taylor was strapped to. He untied the ropes holding the little arms and legs. “No one is going to find us, or put us in the fucking chair. We’ve got a plan and this doesn’t change it.” He tossed the ropes behind him, then stood and slid his hands under the boy’s shoulders. “Here, help me get him onto the bed. By the time they find him, we’ll be long gone, living in one of those little Mexican towns down by the sea.”
 
The thought of the sea focused Neil. The abscess was still inside, swirling somewhere deep and unreachable, but the cloud of panic that had fallen over him had begun to lift at the thought. The sea. It was where Rex had promised Neil they would go after the kidnapping. A new and far away place, free of the numbing pain of the past. When he’d imagined it, lying awake in the bed he’d shared with his wife before she left, the sea had been more than just a place without his memories of Meredith and the empty room he had painted baby blue and the job he had been laid off from; it’d been a place of peace, a place where the past didn’t matter, a place on the edge of something so powerful that history forgot to exist. It was there, at the sea, where Neil and his wife would be reunited, where, together again, they would bury their grief in the constant churning of the waves.
 
“Are you going to help me or not?”
 
The sound of waves in his ears, Neil moved over to the chair Taylor Olsen sat dead in, then bent to lift the body by the ankles. He hadn’t noticed before, but now he saw Taylor’s shoes were boat shoes, gray canvas with leather strap laces. The shoes alone probably cost more than the suit Neil had been married in. He took them gently, the insides of the shoes were light, as though filled with bird bones, something too fragile to be held between his own ugly hands, then lifted. Trying not to squeeze too tightly, Neil pretended he was carrying a sandbag, something necessary and vital that would be carefully lain to keep a sudden surge of brackish water at bay. Together, Neil and Rex placed the body on the bed, then wrapped it in the threadbare Huskers blanket.
 
They left the house several hours later in separate cars.
 
The call had gone exactly as Rex said it would, and though Neil had allowed himself to believe Rex when he said they’d make it through, that they wouldn’t be caught, he remembered how he’d felt in those first moments after seeing the body, how he had felt something open up inside himself, a hole too dark to see the bottom of, it’s edges muddy and crumbling. It didn’t help that he was the one with Taylor’s body in the trunk of his Camry. That while Rex was off collecting the cash, Neil was stuck with the physical reminder of everything that had already gone wrong.
 
Neil took the highway towards Omaha, then exited near South Bend. The radio off, he followed surface roads until he came to a narrow tree covered turn off leading to a small campground that sat on the bank of the Platte River. The abscess swirled in him as he turned down the lonely road. He tried to think of the money, to imagine a kind of hope in it, but he knew a hundred thousand dollars wasn’t enough to erase the memory of a dead kid. It wasn’t enough to forget how cold the skin of Taylor’s ankles had felt against his hands or the strange inert weight of the child’s body.
 
He doubted a million would be enough to forget.
     
The road emptied into a small snow packed lot. Camping signs and cement trash containers and small standing charcoal pits lined the edges of the lot, the black shape of the river churning beyond. Dirty snow lay on top of gravel and frozen mud. Wind pushed through empty trees. Neil parked at the river's edge, the yellow headlights of his car shining out over the thin capped crests of the slow moving water.
 
An image came to his head then, startling him, something he’d seen on TV once, back when Meredith had been pregnant: a parade of slow-moving paper boats with little lanterns set softly inside, moving down the silver river of some far off European city. He remembered how moved Meredith had been by it, how her feet had felt in his hands, how warm and comforting their living room had been, and he remembered wondering what happened to the boats when the water finally broke the seal of the paper, if they continued floating without shape or if the weight of the lantern dragged them down to the bottom of the river. He’d meant to look it up, maybe try it with the kid once he was old enough.
     
The memory passed, leaving him uncomfortable in its wake. When he felt calmer, he reached into his jacket and pulled out his phone. Rex would be at the mall now. He would be picking up the cash any minute.
 
Tell me when you got it he texted, then placed his phone in the cup holder by his side.
 
Neil waited for a response. Time stretched out, deep and unnavigable. He took long, drawing breaths, each an attempt at stilling the swirling emptiness inside. If things had gone according to plan, Rex would be headed back to the house with the cash. Or, because he’d insisted on going to the pick-up armed, he’d could be lying dead on the floor of the Oakview mall, his life and their money gone, just like the boy in Neil’s trunk.
   
Five minutes went by, then ten. No answer.
 
“Okay,” he said to the empty car. “Okay.” He picked up the phone again, hands shaking. The abscess inside settled as Neil dialed the number from memory.
 
“Neil? I can’t talk now. You don’t - ”
 
“Mr. Olsen, I’m so sorry.”
 
The phone was silent for a long time, and in that silence, Neil imagined he could hear the sound of waves and the pounding of blood in Mr. Olsen’s temples and the scream his wife would make when he gripped her by the arm and told her what Neil had said. “I don’t know how I got talked into it. And I’m so sorry. I wish I could tell you how sorry.”
 
When Olsen spoke again, his voice was clear and surprisingly soft. ”It’s okay, Neil. Whatever you did. You did the right thing by calling me, you know that, right? I want to help you. I can help you make it okay.”
 
“I wish you could, but you can’t.”
 
“What are you saying, Neil?”
 
“It was Rex…”
 
“Rex? Neil, is that who picked up the money? Is that who it was, Rex Piccillo? He has the money, Neil. He has it. All of it. If you didn’t want to do it, it’s okay, just tell me where Taylor is and I’ll help.“
 
Tears crowded the corners of his eyes. Neil wiped them away, then went to the trunk, Olsen telling him all the ways he could help him as he moved. Neil opened the lid, then looked down at Taylor Olsen’s body.
 
“We can make this okay, Neil,” Olsen said. “We can make it like this never happened. It was Rex. I know it was Rex. I know you, Neil. I know you didn’t mean for this to happen. I know you wouldn’t have meant for things to go so far.“
 
In the dim light of the trunk the boy’s face was a peculiar shade of newborn pink. Neil reached down and touched it the way he imaged Mr. Olsen had done the first time he’d ever held his son. The child's father still in his ears, Neil wiped his fingers over Taylor's open eyes. He tried to close them, but the lids yawned up again, the clouded pupils staring up past Neil and the open lid of the trunk and into the overcast winter night. “I thought you’d want to say goodbye,” Neil said. “I know I would have liked that.”
 
A screaming sound grew from the phone, alien and wordless but something Neil recognized and knew intimately. It was the sound of overpowering pain, deep and ancient and made all the more wretched by its commonality. Crying again, Neil reached down and held the phone to the boy’s ear. He didn’t think Taylor could hear his father, but he wanted to believe that somehow some part of the boy could feel the vibrations of his father’s sound through the skin.
 
“That’s okay,” Neil said, unsure if he was talking to Taylor or Olsen or himself. “That’s okay for now.” He placed the phone in the back corner of the trunk, then picked up the dead boy, cradling him in his arms. He walked down the bank of the river, his feet sliding over the hardened mud. With every step he felt that strange hole in him grow deeper, the bottom a suctioning pool that spun and spun, pulled by some unseen underground current, widening the crevasse. He wondered how long it had been there. If there had always been an emptiness in him, or if there’d only been the potential for one, an area of soft ground just waiting for some horrible tide to wash everything away.
 
At the water’s edge he paused, the lights of the car shining over the small waves. A small sheet of ice moved past, broken off from one of the larger floes that gathered around the pillars of the bridge spanning the interstate just upriver. The cold biting at his face, Neil wondered if Rex really had gotten the money, or if Olsen had lied to him. He wondered if Rex had kept to their plan or run off on his own, and if he had kept to the plan, how much cash would be back at the house? But if he hadn’t run off, why hadn’t he texted Neil back?
 
As he stepped into the water, Neil decided he didn’t care.
 
The coldness of the river shocked the breath from his lungs. He felt his legs go numb up to the thighs, his jacket weighed down by the sudden soaking. Neil took another step, his boots sticking in the muddy bottom. He almost slipped, righted himself, then moved deeper into the river, Taylor’s body still held tight. He waded in until the water was up to his chin, until the boy had become loose in his arms, buoyantly tugging at his grip. Neil’s teeth smashed wildly against themselves and his clipped breaths fell out of him, fogging his vision until all he could see was the body of the child and the water and the night.
 
The river bottom had torn away his boot and sock, leaving his toes suddenly free. He flexed them, enjoying what little he could feel, then moved on. He was deep into the river now, almost halfway to the middle, the current pulling all around him. He was far enough out to let the body go and ensure it would be carried downstream, that it wouldn’t wash ashore against the dirty brackish bank of the campground, but the idea of letting the little body go here, where it was still shallow enough for Neil to stand, seemed disrespectful somehow.
 
He kicked off, pushing towards the heart of the river.
 
Neil moved with the body until his feet could no longer feel the river bottom and the water that splashed against his face slid down his throat. Kicking to stay atop the small, rushing waves, tears and river water frosting over his eyes, Neil finally let go of what was left of Taylor Olsen.
 
Water pulled at the creases of the boy’s pants and the joints of the boy’s knees and arms, and Neil watched as the current grabbed the facedown boy and carried it further and further away until the body was gone, as indistinguishable and dark to Neil as any other ice floe on the river’s surface.
 
When the body was gone, in that darkness and cold, Neil felt a strange calmness settle over him.
 
His arms had grown heavy and he found his whole body was now difficult to move. Small waves sloshed against his face and eyes. Water slipped down his throat and chilled his teeth. He turned and looked for the headlights of the Camry but could not see them. He’d moved downstream, away from the riverbank and the recreation area he’d parked in.
 
He kicked harder, trying to right himself against the current and the river bottom below, but his knees had gone stiff and his only movement was a kind of bobbing along the surface. There was no panic, only a dim awareness of himself and the water and the shape of the river stretched out before him. The banks of the river grew no closer, and he lost himself in his rhythm, his mind going foggy and then blank, his only thought of the pull of the water and the slow cycle of his up and down movement on the surface.
 
The river carried him further along, the current pulling at the seat of his pants and the spread of his jacket. Neil took a deep breath and felt his legs be pulled out from underneath him. He thought of the paper boats then, of how they had glided down the glass surface of the river in that far away stone city. He thought of how much he would have liked to take his own son there to watch. They would have stood on the cobblestone bank and watched the fleet of boats flowing by, his son’s hand in his own. He could not remember what he and Meredith had planned to name the boy, had he come, but now he knew the boy should have been named Taylor. The boats would go by, and after watching silently, the boy would have looked to him and asked what happened to the boats, and Neil would have answered that, while he didn’t know for sure, he imagined the weight of the lanterns eventually tore through the paper, opening a hole, and when it did the bodies of the boats filled with water, and as the water came in they would spin and spin and then be pulled under, where they would dissolve and break up beneath the waves.
 
Neil was on his back now, the current moving faster.
 
It had been cold, but he’d become used to it, just as he'd gotten used to the smell of Meredith’s constant sickness as she’d carried their doomed child. The hole inside, the abscess that had felt bottomless and churning was gone now. Instead, he felt at peace, as though he belonged there in the river. He could feel its waters filling him, making him whole.
 
His head slipped underneath the water, and when it broke the surface again, Neil realized he wasn’t sure how long he had been under. He couldn’t feel the cold anymore. He could not see the darkness of the sky. He barely felt the water washing over the edges of his face. It wasn’t so bad, floating like this, Neil decided. He could go on a while longer.
 
The sound of waves in his ears, Neil let the current carry him downstream.


Paul J. Garth has been published in Thuglit, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Plots with Guns, Crime Factory, Tough, and several other anthologies and web magazines. He lives and writes in Nebraska, where he lives with his family. An editor at Shotgun Honey, he is at work on his first novel, and can be found online by following @pauljgarth on Twitter.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Dirty Laundry, fiction by Michael Bracken

Julia Calloway Poe sat at a table outside Starbucks and stared at her cellphone, much like the coffee drinkers occupying the surrounding tables. Her shoulder-length auburn hair had that just-rolled-out-of-bed look that takes hours to get just right, and lightly applied make-up failed to mask the spray of freckles beneath her emerald green eyes. Over an hour-glass figure she wore a form-fitting black-and-white striped T-shirt, fashionably torn jeans purchased at some chic boutique, and black platform pumps. Except for the nervous tic in her left eye, she could have been any one of the hundreds of interchangeable Baylor graduates gentrifying Waco.

I dropped into the empty seat opposite her. When Julia looked up, I handed her one of my business cards. Neatly thermographed on the front were my name—Morris Ronald Boyette—and my contact information. She glanced at the card before tucking it under the corner of her venti cup and turning her cellphone face down. “You’re late.”

Magnoliatards—out-of-towers flooding Waco as a result of a popular television program about Waco-based home renovators—had bottlenecked traffic downtown, and as I’d left my office, I’d nearly run down a young couple who thought traffic lights and crosswalks were suggestions. The resulting exchange of hand gestures had delayed me significantly, and I wasn’t in the mood to play. “If you’ve somewhere more important to be,” I said, “then why are you still here?”

Julia stiffened and her eyes narrowed as she examined my face. She flicked the corner of my business card with the tip of one blood-red fingernail. After several seconds, she expelled her breath and said, “Fine. We’ll do this your way.”

She reached into her purse, removed a check already folded in half, and slid it across the table. I disappeared it into my jacket pocket.

“Aren’t you going to look at it?”

The check was either sufficiently large, or it wasn’t. I said, “Schrödinger’s cat.”

She nodded. I was surprised she caught the reference.

Before I could ask how she wanted me to earn the money, Julia said, “My brother and his wife were murdered in El Paso.”

“And you want me to find their killer?”

“No, the police have already arrested someone,” she said. “This is about my niece.”

Waco has its share of quiet coffee shops in gentrifying neighborhoods, but my client had chosen the Starbucks at the intersection of Bosque Boulevard and Wooded Acres Drive—busy, multi-lane thoroughfares lined with fast-food joints and big box stores. The traffic lights changed several times while I waited for her to continue.

“Caroline is four,” Julia finally said.

“Where is she now?”

“With her grandparents—her mother’s parents—and I haven’t been allowed to see her.”

I asked a few questions. Julia provided a few answers. Her older brother Austin had been the first to attend Baylor, had graduated the same semester she completed her freshman year, and had immediately found employment with a local bank. He married the bank president’s daughter the following year. Whether through hard work or familial connections, Austin rose quickly through the ranks to vice president of commercial lending, and his clients had been instrumental in transforming downtown Waco from a ghost town into a tourist destination. His wife Holly, who had never worked at a paying job, was active on the boards of several charitable organizations.

Julia, on the other hand, remained single despite her brother’s best efforts. She supported herself as a librarian in Hewitt, a small community that shared a common border with Waco, and she supplemented her income with a modest monthly check from the trust fund her parents established before their deaths.

Reciting her family history loosened Julia’s tongue, but didn’t explain why her dead brother’s in-laws wouldn’t let her see her niece. When she paused long enough to sip from her venti cup, I asked.

“They want to adopt Caroline,” she said. “They already have some high-priced attorney working on it.”

“They?”

“David and Donna Exter.”

David Alexrod Exter IV was the most recent Exter to serve as president of Huaco Bank & Trust, founded by his family in the late 1800s to serve the financial needs of the cotton plantations that fueled the area’s earliest economic boom. Unlike competitors, they had never opened branches in the suburbs, relying on old money and business accounts rather than chasing paycheck-to-paycheck working-family accounts.

“They’re living in high cotton,” I said. “They should be able to care for all her needs.”

“I’m sure they can,” Julia said, “but that’s no reason to cut me out of Caroline’s life.”

“What do you think I can do for you that a good family law attorney can’t?”

“I think I would be a better parent for my niece, but I haven’t the money to fight the
Exters in court—if I could find an attorney willing to do battle with them. For now, I just need leverage. I need something I can hold over their heads so they won’t cut me completely out of Caroline’s life.” Julia reached across the table, rested her hand on my wrist, and stared into my eyes. “Find me that something.”

With most any other woman, I would have thought her touch was a veiled come-on, but a careful examination of the look in her eyes revealed that it was an appeal to my masculine desire to ride a white horse to the rescue of a damsel in distress. She offered nothing in return but her deep appreciation and, I hoped, a check that would clear the bank.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“That’s all I ask.”

She drew back her hand, collected my business card and her phone from the table, and opened her purse to store them away. When she did, I glimpsed the grip of a .25 ACP Baby Browning Pistol.

“Do you know how to use that?”

“My brother gave it to me,” she said, not quite answering my question.

***

“She was packing heat?” Millie asked. Millard Wayne Trout—“Millie” because his family still called his grandfather “Millard”—operated Millie’s Tattoos and Piercings, and with every part of his body but his face and his hands covered with tattoos, served as his own walking billboard. We were sitting in his place eating Lip Locker double-meat cheeseburgers and Oriental fries from Kitok while Alice Frizell, a wisp of a tattoo artist he’d hired several years earlier, etched a starburst around the belly button of a college-age blonde.

My office was in the room behind Millie’s. Across the hall from Millie’s, in front of an empty office that had once housed a finance company too legitimate for the neighborhood, was Big Mac’s Bail Bonds. All of us had been given sixty days to relocate before our building was demolished to make room for new construction, a project financed by Huaco Bank & Trust.

“Remind me again why a librarian needs a handgun.”

“Said her brother insisted.”

Millie grunted around a mouthful of cheeseburger and listened as I told him why Julia Calloway Poe had hired me. When I finished, he said, “She wants you to get something on the Exters. What does she think you’ll find?”

I had no idea, but I had sorted through enough metaphorical hampers over the years to know that everybody had dirty laundry. Finding out just how much and just how dirty the Exters’ laundry was would keep me occupied until my client’s advance ran out. “I thought I would pay a visit to the house first, see if I can catch a glimpse of the little girl at the center of this mess.”

***

I waited until banker’s hours the next day, when I was certain David Exter would be in his office and his wife would be home with their granddaughter. Only she wasn’t. I knocked on the door of their Tudor Revival on Austin Avenue and soon found myself facing a diminutive Hispanic woman in black slacks and crisp white blouse who explained that the lady of the house was away.

“Will she be home soon?”

“She didn’t say.”

I folded a hundred-dollar bill around my business card and held it out to her. “Will you call me when she returns?”

She hesitated a moment and then made the money and my card disappear into one of her pockets. “Don’t hold your breath. Mrs. Exter packed several suitcases and took the Escalade. Mr. Cheese drove.”

“Where would she—?”

I didn’t finish my question because the door closed in my face was unlikely to answer.

***

I headed downtown and parked on the street in front of Big Mac’s Bail Bonds. Lester motioned to me through the plate-glass window, so I joined him inside. He had taken over the business decades years earlier when a disgruntled client emptied a shotgun in Macdonald Pearson’s face, and he was looking worse for wear every time I saw him.

As soon as I stepped through the door, Lester showed me an eviction letter that duplicated the one I’d received a few days earlier. “I’m too old for this shit,” he said. “Quimby’s made an offer, so I’m selling out at the end of the month. I’m not writing any new bonds, and Quimby has his own muscle, so—”

Lester let the sentence hang, but I knew how it ended. He wouldn’t have any more work for me, and we both knew there were lean months where the only thing that kept me in business was collecting one of his bail-jumping clients.

I thanked him, shook his hand, and wished him good luck in retirement.

As I stepped out of the side door into the hallway that led back to my office, he offered, “If there’s ever anything you need.”

I stopped and turned back. “You ever do any work for the Exter family?”

He snorted. “Family like that don’t need a bail bondsman. Any problem they ever had they could pay their way out of.”

“You ever heard anything?”

“Only what I read in the paper.”

Waco only had the one—and it was shrinking—so Lester read the same paper I read.

“Of course,” he continued, pausing a moment as if considering whether to share the thought that crossed his mind. “I know a guy was fresh out of the academy when he stopped Mrs. Exter about three a.m. She’d been driving down the middle of Austin Avenue, weaving from curb to curb. He was planning to issue a DWI when she blew a one-point-six—that’s a class A misdemeanor—but he was talked out of it when a commander happened by. The next morning he found an envelope stuffed with hundreds slipped under his apartment door. He works private security now."

***

Later that afternoon, David Exter pushed open my office door, stepped inside, and flipped one of my business cards onto my desk. I didn’t get up.

“Maria gave me your card.” Exter wore a bespoke blue pinstripe suit over a red silk tie and a crisp white shirt. Silver threaded his hair at the temples. The only thing out of place was him in my office. “She said you stopped by the house and asked about my wife.”

“I did.”

“What did you want to see her about?”

“Actually, I was looking for your granddaughter.”

Exter’s gaze traveled around my office before once again settling on me. There was barely enough room for me and him and his appraising gaze. “Julia hire you?”
I didn’t respond, but I didn’t need to.

“She’s a fine young woman,” Exter said, “but she has no idea what she’s getting herself into.”

“Julia just wants to see her niece.”

“She’s better off not,” he said. “She can’t take care of the girl.”

“How hard can it be?” I meant it as a rhetorical question, but I really had no idea. My wife had disappeared with my son when he was near Caroline’s age.

Exter reached into his jacket and removed a leather breast-pocket wallet. As he opened it and began removing crisp one-hundred-dollar bills, he asked, “How much will it take to convince you to stop whatever foolishness Julia’s hired you for?”

My client’s retainer check had done little more than make my house payment and pay for the Lip Lockers and Oriental fries I’d shared with Millie the previous day. So, enough for a security deposit and first- and last-month’s rent on a new office would certainly tempt me. I pushed back my chair and stood. “I’d rather you leave.”
Exter slid the crisp bills back into his wallet and drew out a hundred-dollar bill that had been creased twice shortways. When he dropped it next to my business card, I remembered where I had last seen it. He said, “Don’t expect any calls from Maria. ICE picked her up an hour ago.”

With that, the banker vacated my office. I followed as far as the hall—a distance of three steps—and watched as he strode down the hall. Millie stepped out of his tattoo shop, saw Exter’s back as the outside door swung shut, and he turned to me. “What did he want?”

“To buy me off,” I said, “or to threaten me.”

***

I caught my client coming out of the Hewitt Public Library at the end of her workday. She wore a loose-fitting beige blouse, coffee-colored straight-leg slacks, and matching-colored flats, all of which masked the hourglass figure on display when we’d first met. Her hair, pulled back in a simple ponytail, completed the look. Even though I had not called ahead, she did not seem surprised to see me. She seemed hopeful. I was leaning against my car, and Julia stopped a few feet from me. “You have something already?”

“Mrs. Exter has taken your niece out of town, and Mr. Exter has suggested I cease my inquiries.”

The hopeful expression slid from her face. “I expected as much. The two attorneys I tried to hire returned my retainer after speaking with him. They claimed conflict of interest.” She held out her hand. “You here to return yours?”

“I can’t,” I told her. “I already spent it.”

She lowered her hand.

“Is there someplace we can talk?”

She rented a one-bedroom flat in the Brookside Apartments just off of Hewitt Drive, only a few miles from the library, and I followed her there. Once inside, she poured tall glasses of peach tea while I circumnavigated the kitchen/dining/living room. The room was sparsely but tastefully furnished, and a digital picture frame graced one end table, the photographs changing every ten seconds. After Julia handed me one of the tea glasses, she stood next to me and identified her parents, herself and her brother as children, her brother and his wife, and her niece. She had no photos of the Exters, but I hadn’t expected any.

My client paused the rotation and tapped a finger against the photograph on the screen. Her brother and sister-in-law were holding Caroline, but Austin was not looking at the camera. His attention was focused on something or someone over the left shoulder of the photographer.

“I took this the weekend before they went to El Paso.”

“Looks like your brother was preoccupied.”

“I think he was in over his head.”

I turned to Julia. “Excuse me?”

“Austin told me he didn’t want to go.” She restarted the photograph rotation. “He said his father-in-law insisted.”

“What was he supposed to do there?”

“Meet with one of the bank’s clients.”

“In El Paso? Why would someone from El Paso bank in Waco?”

Julia shrugged.

“Is this the same conversation where your brother gave you the gun?”

“No,” she said. “He did that a year ago, about the same time he stopped introducing me to his unmarried business associates. He said he wasn’t a good judge of character and that I would be better off finding my own dates.”

“And are you?”

“I’m still single, Mr. Boyette, so what do you think?”

I had no appropriate response, so I sipped from my tea glass.

***

I hadn’t bothered to ask about the murder of Austin and Holly Exter because Julia had not hired me to look into the circumstances of their death, but on the drive back to my office I became curious. Once seated at my Macintosh, I did a quick internet search and found several articles about their murder, none of the information of much value. According to local news media, Austin and Holly’s deaths were the result of a robbery gone wrong, and the Mexican national El Paso police arrested had her wedding ring set and his Rolex watch in his pocket. I’d worked enough cases over the years to know the police had held something back, but I had never worked a case in El Paso and knew no one there.

I made a few calls and found a former client who owed me a favor who was in turn owed a favor by a homicide detective in El Paso. Within an hour I received a call from a gravel-voice detective who established his bona fides without revealing his name or rank.

After some initial back-and-forth, he said, “We’re certain it’s a professional hit, but we can’t shake this guy’s story. He’s taking the fall, so there must be something in it for him.”

“Like what?”

“He has a wife and a daughter and stage-three lung cancer. He gets convicted, he’ll be dead before we ever strap him into the chair.”

“And his family?”

“Wouldn’t be surprised if their standard of living doesn’t improve significantly.”

“Cartel?”

He didn’t answer directly. He said, “The dead guy’s a banker. Follow the money.”

***

Following the money led back to Huaco Bank & Trust and the Exter family. Had the Exter family continued living in high cotton thanks to an influx of cartel cash? If so, what message had been sent by killing the bank president’s daughter and son-in-law? Before I could answer my own questions, I heard, “Moe Ron?”

I looked up and saw Millie standing in the open doorway.

“You’re here late,” I said.

“Had a guy visit me this afternoon,” he said. “Said they aren’t waiting to start the demolition. The wrecking crew starts work next Monday.”

“You found a place yet?”

“Looking at a building over on Washington Avenue.” Instead of replacing the old buildings, like the developer was planning to do with ours, the buildings on Washington Avenue were being renovated. “You?”

“I haven’t had time.” I’d had time, I just hadn’t used it. “This case is taking all my attention.”

“Think they’re pushing up the demolition date because of you?” Millie asked.
Knowing whose bank was financing the project, I had no reason to doubt it.

***

I was uncertain about my next step, so I spent the following morning moving files from my office to my second bedroom for storage until I found a new place. I was back at the office packing a second carload when I received an unexpected phone call.

I had not spoken to Elroy Johnson in years, and he did not introduce himself, but I recognized his voice. “I heard you been asking questions about an incident in El Paso.”

“A few.”

Texas is a big state, made smaller by men like Elroy Johnson. With loose connections to Families in Kansas City, St. Louis, and New Orleans they laundered money, brokered deals with the Mexican Mafia, and shared news of important events across the state. I’d known Elroy since childhood when I’d played high school football with his nephew, and when I was younger our paths crossed more often than I cared to admit. He asked, “What’s it to you?”

“A little girl lost both her parents.” I told him about Caroline Poe Exter and why her aunt Julia had hired me.

“The mother was an accident,” Johnson said. “She wasn’t supposed to be with him.”

“Did he know what he was walking into?”

“Exter knew.”

“You’re saying his father-in-law set him up?”

“There’s a quarter million unaccounted for,” Johnson said. “Someone had to pay.”

I had stepped ass deep into Exter’s dirty laundry and it turned out to be laundered money.

“The Exters have a place on the shores of Lake Palestine,” Johnson continued. “She took the little girl there. She has a bodyguard, an ex-cop, so go prepared.”

“How do you know?”

“Information is my business,” Johnson said. “Make sure the little girl is safe and then get out of the way.”

After ending the conversation, I walked down the hall to talk to Lester Beeson. He was cleaning out his files, and three plastic trash bags were awaiting a trip to the dumpster out back.

“The ex-cop you mentioned the other day,” I said, “what was his name?”

“Cheesebrough,” he said. “Carter Cheesebrough.”

Mr. Cheese.

I crossed the hall to the tattoo parlor and told Millie I needed his help.

When we left late that afternoon for the two-and-a-half hour drive to Lake Palestine, Millie left the tattoo parlor in Alice Frizell’s hands. I rode shotgun in Millie’s 1965 Mustang, a car he’d rescued from a junkyard and restored during his limited free time.

Millie parked a quarter mile from the Exters’ lake house and made his way through the tall pines to the rear of the property. I walked up the winding drive, making no effort to mask my approach. I’d barely reached the top step of the veranda when the front door opened. A man built like a Frigidaire stepped out and said, “Who are you, and what do you want?”

I glanced at the Sig Sauer held in his right hand. “You must be Cheesebrough.”

He raised the pistol. “What do you want?”

“To talk to Mrs. Exter,” I said. “To lay eyes on her granddaughter.”

“And you are?”

“Your replacement.”

I had no idea how Millie made it through the house so quickly, but he clocked the bodyguard with a punch to the back of his head, and the unconscious man collapsed to the floor. We tied him to one of the dining room chairs and found Donna Exter and Caroline Exter Poe hiding in the master bedroom’s walk-in closet.

Mrs. Exter filled out a Ralph Lauren denim shirt and a pair of dark-wash jeans with a shapely figure that had softened with age. Her golden blond bob had been expertly highlighted, and she had accented her deceptively casual appearance with diamond stud earrings, a Breitling watch, and a diamond solitaire engagement ring worth more than my car. Beside her, Caroline wore OshKosh denim overalls over a pink T-shirt and pink running shoes, static electricity causing her shoulder-length flyaway blond hair to stick to everything around her.

As Mrs. Exter pushed her granddaughter behind her, she stared over my shoulder at the Illustrated Man that was Millie. Every part of his body I had ever seen, except his face and his palms, was covered with tattoos that frightened genteel society.

She said, “Do what you want with me but leave Caroline alone.”

“Collect whatever you think you need,” I told her. “You’re going home.”

While she gathered a few things, I made a call. Someone Elroy Johnson knew would release Cheesebrough from his bonds a few hours after we drove away, and within twenty minutes, I was behind the wheel of Mrs. Exter’s Escalade, with her in the passenger seat and Caroline in her car seat in back. Millie followed in his Mustang.
On the return trip to Waco, I told Mrs. Exter what I had learned about her husband’s business activities and the reason her daughter and son-in-law had been murdered in El Paso. She listened, asked no questions, and after I finished rode the rest of the way in silence.

I was half an hour from Waco when I called Julia to tell her I had located her niece, that Exter had been responsible for her brother’s death, and that she need to meet us at the Exters’ home if she wanted to see Caroline. When we arrived, we found Julia standing in the Exters’ living room, one hand tightly gripping her .25 ACP Baby Browning Pistol as she pointed it between David Alexrod Exter IV’s steel-gray eyes.
He sat in an overstuffed chair, wearing a blue pin-striped suit, the knot of his red tie pulled askew, and the top button of his rumpled white shirt unfastened. He had aged since his visit to my office. She wore jeans and a loose-fitting white T-shirt and, without make-up and her hair askew, and looked younger than her years. The nervous tic in her left eye had returned.

“You don’t want to do this,” I said.

“He killed my brother.”

“He didn’t—”

“He didn’t pull the trigger,” she said, “but he might as well have.”

“You do this and you’ll never see your niece again.”

Millie, Mrs. Exter, and Caroline stood behind me. Mrs. Exter stepped around Millie and addressed her husband. “Is it true, what they told me? Did Austin die because you’ve been laundering drug money for the cartels? Because you skimmed some of it?”

Without taking his attention from the pistol in Julia’s hands, he nodded.

“And Holly?”

“Holly wasn’t supposed to be with him,” he said. “She was collateral damage.”

“Collateral damage?” Mrs. Exter’s voice rose. “She was my daughter!”

Exter said nothing.

“Give me that.” Mrs. Exter reached out and took the pistol from Julia’s hand. “Now go. Take Caroline and go.”

Millie and I hustled Julia and Caroline out through the front door. I had just opened the passenger door of Millie’s Mustang when I heard the first shot. Five more shots followed.

Schrödinger’s cat. As long as I didn’t look back, Exter was both alive and dead, and I wasn’t certain it mattered either way.

***

I learned later that Donna Exter hadn’t killed her husband, but six shots from Julia’s little handgun perforated him in ways from which he could never recover. Exter spends his days drooling on himself, thinking thoughts no one will ever know, while his wife spends her days incarcerated in the William P. Hobby Unit in Marlin.

A significant amount of money shifted from Huaco Bank & Trust to offshore accounts before the Feds swooped in and took control. Elroy Johnson ensured that some of it made its way back to Caroline and Julia in the form of a trust fund, and Julia left her position with the Hewitt Public Library to raise her niece.

Lester sold his business to Quimby and retired. Millie bought a two-story building on Washington Avenue for his tattoo parlor, and I rent the upstairs from him.

Business is slow.


Michael Bracken has written several books, including the private eye novel All White Girls, and more than 1,300 short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories, and in many other anthologies and periodicals. “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” his previous Morris Ronald Boyette story for Tough, was named one of the Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2018 by the editors of The Best American Mystery Stories. He lives, writes, and edits in Texas.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Liars, Killers and Thieves, fiction by Nikki Dolson

The first time I stopped running was in a town named DuPont. I pulled off the highway and drove my truck right into the parking lot of a motel with a lit vacancy sign. My fake I.D. wasn’t questioned but the clerk, a white woman with turquoise-colored hair named Amanda, quizzed me: Where had I come from? Was I going to Wichita? Was I ready for fall? She didn’t wait for my answers. I paid for a week with a stack of bills I nearly fumbled all over the floor. I was shaky with exhaustion. I wasn’t sure I could stay in one place that long but I was too tired to drive another mile. I’d driven nearly non-stop after I mistakenly thought I could hideout with the masses in Austin, Texas. My new personal rule was never go to the best barbecue place in town, no matter if it is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant off an alley. You will be seen.

Amanda stood six-foot-three in barefeet. I knew this detail because she told me and also unlatched the half-door in the counter to show me her bare feet and the manicure that matched her hair. She was high on something. I watched her curl a long finger around a lock of hair and get distracted by it. I knocked on the counter between us to get her attention.

“Sorry. You’ll have the run of the place. You’re the only one staying here,” Amanda said. She tapped at her keyboard.

“Great. I don’t want to talk to people.” I was weepy at the idea of a bed, of sleeping in, of not driving.

She deflated a little. “I’m sorry I’ve just been talking and talking and talking.”

I waved her off. “It’s fine. Can I have my room key?”

“Oh, sorry.”

“Don’t apologize so much.”

“Sor-” Amanda caught herself and smiled. Her dimples were spectacular. She couldn’t have been older than twenty-one and was dewy with youth, a condition I’d only read about and had never noticed before. Tears blurred my vision. Amanda had her whole life ahead of her and I had nothing. Evidently, I was going to be weepy over everything until I got some sleep.

Amanda stretched across the counter to give me the key and she held my hand for a moment. “If I can do anything for you, you just let me know.”

I blinked away the tears that were threatening to fall. “What are you on?”

She laughed. “A little molly. Do you want? I’ll sell you some, assuming you’re not a cop.”

“No one looks at me and thinks I’m a cop.”

She looked me over. “You could be a teacher.”

“I’ve heard that before but I’m just a dead woman.” I had to stop talking. I turned to leave but she called after me, “Do you want the molly?”

“Maybe later.”

“If you need ice, don’t use the machine outside your room. I’ve worked here for two years and I’ve never seen it cleaned.”

I thanked her for the heads up and went to find my room.

The room was more than I expected. Low wattage lightbulbs in all the fixtures lit the corners of my room like candles. It had a kitchenette I wouldn’t use and an extra deep bathtub, the interior of which was scalloped like a clam’s shell. Fancy upgrades for a room with grey industrial grade carpet. I dumped my duffel on a table and sat in one of its two matching chairs to remove my boots. From the duffel I pulled out the plastic freezer bags of money and hid them in the bed’s box spring where a tear in the fabric already existed. I stripped off my clothes, cranked up the window AC unit and crawled into the bed. The sheets were cool but rough against my skin when I slid beneath them. As much as I wanted to sleep, I stayed awake listening to the night and the AC unit, waiting for the sun. As if my bad dreams might only come true in the dark.

The next afternoon, I drove over to the office for advice on where to find food. Amanda wasn’t there. In her place was Ned.

“Can I help you?” Ned didn’t get up from his chair behind the counter. From where I stood, he was only a disembodied head with hair so wispy and pale it was nearly invisible. Eyebrows were much the same. He was watching a little black and white portable television. I hadn’t seen one of those since the 90s.

I started to speak but he turned, had a good look at me in my wrinkled tank top, jeans, and flip flops. His gaze held just enough parental disapproval in it to make me regret my red bra, the straps of which were definitely showing. Ned decided I was lacking. “I’m sorry we don’t have any rooms available,” he said.

“Is that so?”

Now he stood up and I saw he was broad shouldered, barrel chested, and beer-gutted.
“You might have better luck if you drive on to Wichita.”

“Is that the best place find food?”

He frowned. “No, there’s a place a few miles north. Cassidy’s. There’s a Walmart that way too.”

“Thanks for being so helpful.”

“Get you some lunch and drive on.”


With news of a Walmart nearby, I went back to the room to pull more money from my stash. Two months on the road and I still had a little over fourteen thousand. I’d been frugal up until now. Never spending enough to be noticed. But I needed some necessities—underwear, toothpaste, deodorant, etc. and I figured all Walmarts were the same and I wouldn’t get out of there with less than a hundred dollars’ worth of nothing I really needed.

Cassidy’s was a diner in the heart of the town. There was a smattering of boarded-up store windows and closed signs along with a post office, a library, a couple schools and, of course, the Walmart, all within a block or two of each other. Cassidy’s was all fluorescent lights and 50s décor. The booth I sat in was upholstered in a red vinyl with white piping gone dingy gray in places. The tables were Formica banded in chrome. The menu was straight forward classic American—eggs, bacon, sausage, burgers, steak, and potatoes prepared in every way expected. My waitress came over and she was Amanda, lithe and lovely, in a terrible blue waitress uniform.

“Just how small is this town?” I said.

“Hi again.” Amanda was red-eyed but still so amiable I had to ask what she was on now.

“Ugh, nothing.” She exhaled and blew at the lock of blue hair that hung down over one eye. I ordered coffee but she shook her head so I asked for orange juice and one of everything off the breakfast menu.

She brought me my juice and sat down across from me. “How’d you sleep?”

“I slept enough.”

She arched a perfectly plucked eyebrow. “What does that even mean?”

“Don’t you have work to do?” I glanced around the restaurant. The current customers were all men, wearing work shirts with the name of their employers emblazoned on the back, Vulcan Chemical, Boeing, DHL, etc., and all of them looked like some version of Ned. The place was too quiet. The only noise came from the grill in the back and the clink of silverware on plates and coffee cups moving on and off the Formica countertop.

“They’re friends of my father. They don’t need or want me,” she said.

I sighed. Why fight it? I asked the question. “You don’t get along with your dad?”

“He’s old. Both my parents are. My dad hated my long hair when I was in high school but he absolutely lost it when I dyed it blonde and cut it so I could look like Marilyn Monroe. You can imagine how much he hated me in heels.”

“I bet you’re devastating in heels. What made you go that shade of blue?”

She turned her dimples on again. “I was bored.”

“You work two jobs in the town you grew up in? Not much of a life.”

“It’ll be three come the fall when all the old houses here gear up for Halloween.
We’ve made the New York Times with our annual Haunted House Mile.” She looped a curl of hair around a finger. “It’s the tourism that keeps this town alive. And no, it isn’t much of a life, but I need to save money and feed my pinup habit somehow. Besides my uncle runs the motel. It’s an easy job and he lets me work nights because no one comes in at night. No one but you.”

“Is your uncle named Ned?”

“You met him, huh? Sorry.”

“No, he’s great. Told me to drive to Wichita because there was no room at the inn.”

“Oh my god. He’s such an asshole though he probably doesn’t care that you’re black, if that helps any.”

I rolled my eyes at that last bit. “So long as he leaves me alone.”

“Hey, Adam, you going to work or what?” The cook called from behind the grill.

“Or what,” Amanda yelled back. She rolled her eyes. “He’s an asshole too but it’s a job. I’ll get your food.”

I ate my eggs and watched the men watch her. They didn’t speak to her other than to order and ask for their checks. Still she did her job and smiled. Wasted her dimples on those unworthy men. I left her a twenty for a tip. Then I headed to the Walmart.
Wednesday afternoon, two weeks before school began, meant kids in every aisle and their mothers pushing, cajoling, herding them. One or two kids riding in the carts or hanging off the sides. Older kids carrying basketballs they couldn’t bounce and skateboards they were absolutely forbidden to ride. They begged for sugary cereals in one aisle and pleaded for microwaveable whatnot in the frozen food sections. It was such saccharine sweet perfection I nearly called my own mother, but we’d only disappoint each other and there was the slight chance my father would pick up the phone and I had no desire to talk to him.

Three blocks from the Walmart, I found a bar with a bartender who was happy to take my money and even happier not to talk to me. I drank until night fell then I drank some more. I drank until my phone battery was near gone and I got to the end of the show I was binge-watching. I signaled the bartender for another round. What I got was a beer and woman who used a pair of purple painted crutches. The bartender asked her, “Can I get you a beer, Donna?”

“Yes, please.”

She sat across me and rested the crutches against the wall. “Hello, Cupcake.”

I flinched. I had to remind myself how it’s not nice to assault the elderly. I took a long drink of my beer instead of punching her.

“That’s what they call you, isn’t it?” Donna said.

“I don’t know you,” I said.

“No but our mutual friend thinks you can help me.”

“Have a nice night.” I stood to make my escape and had to grab the table for a moment. I was much too drunk for this.


That next morning, my drunken sleep was interrupted by a man I once met at a party. Louie Pluck was a killer, once upon a time. Then he turned state’s evidence and disappeared. Now he was holding out a coffee cup to me.

“Longtime, Cupcake.”

“Don’t call me that. What are you doing here, Louie?”

“WITSEC.”

“How did you find me?”

“Followed you from Walmart. I’m a cashier there.”

"How is this my life?” I leaned my forehead against the doorjamb. At this rate I was going to need to leave the country to actually get away.

“Let me in. I need you do a little something for me.”

I shut the door in his face. Opened it again, took the coffee out of his hand, and shut and locked the door again. I showered and while the lukewarm water pelted my back, I drank the coffee. It had alcohol in it which eased my hangover. I dressed to the sound of Louie’s continued gentle knocking at my door. The persistent fuck.
I went to the nightstand and removed the lampshade from the lamp. The lamp was cheap but had a heavy base. I’d get a swing or two in before it fell to pieces.

“What,” I said when I opened the door.

“We need to talk, Cupcake.”

I raised the lamp and stepped toward him

“Whoa, whoa. We talk or I talk to Vegas.”

I let him in. He surveyed my room. “Nice.”

“What do you want, Louie.”

“It’s Pete now.”

“Louie, you have to be alive to talk.”

“Nah, I have a failsafe.” He walked over to the bed as if he was going to sit on it.

“Don’t even think about it.”

He circled away from the bed and sat at the table for two in the corner of the room. I sat on the bed, put the lamp on the floor, and wished I had a knife.

“My friend, the lady you met last night, needs you to do her a favor. She’s old and sick. So is her husband. They want to die but you know, it’s hard to be brave enough to do it yourself.”

“I can’t help them.”

“You’ll help them or your boss will know where you are.”

I looked at Louie and very quietly said, “My boss is dead.”

Louie leaned in. “Fuck me. It’s true?” Then he laughed and clapped his hands once.
I picked up the lamp again.

“Relax, relax. If you do them, I won’t tell Vegas where you are. They are looking for you, you know.”

Of course, I knew it. I didn’t need this asshole telling me my own business. I put down the lamp again and exhaled a long breath. “What if I got word to the Old Men about where you are?” The Old Men were just that. Two old men living their lives in Palm Springs and oh yeah, overseeing a bunch of contract killers crisscrossing across the country on their say so.

“They aren’t looking for me anymore. Besides they might want you more. You won’t risk that.”

“What do you get out of all this?”

“A cut of the insurance payout.”

“Who gets the payout?”

“Their son.”

“Where do I find the nearly departed?”

“Well, you find people. You can find Donna and her husband.”

“This is a game to you?”

He shrugged. “I just want to see you work. You know, I remember the first time I saw you. You, in that painted on dress. Your boobs pushed up to your chin. You fucking sparkled. Simon couldn’t keep his eyes off you. None of us could. How old were you then? Twenty? Then I found out you worked for him. How did you do it? Just bat your eyelashes and whisper something dirty in their ear? Tell me.”

I’d been twenty-four years old at that party. My dress hadn’t been that tight but Simon and I had been hot for each other that night. When it was good between us, it was fire. Now Simon was dead because of me. I refused to cry in front of Louie. I cleared my throat and said, “What’s my cut?”

“A grand and you get to walk free.”

“And take any heat.”

“Eh, you have your options. Kill them before you leave town or have Vegas breathing down your neck.” He opened my door, waved, and slithered out into Kansas sunshine.

Now I know that I’m fucked. Louie obviously wanted me to dig for information in town thereby making my face known and connected to Donna. I could leave and let Louie do his worst. I’d been running for weeks so maybe getting cornered by whoever Vegas sent wouldn’t be the worst thing. Maybe I should stand my ground. Show them I wouldn’t be easy to kill. I considered doing that for about three minutes then I called Cassidy’s to talk to Amanda.

“I had a drink with a woman at a bar last night. She had purple crutches. Know her?”

“Yeah, her name is Donna Westcott. What could you two possibly talk about?”

“Nothing. We had beers. What else do you know about her?”

“She taught at the elementary school and coached the high school swim team until she had a stroke.”

“Nice person?”

“Maybe a long time ago but she’s bitter and angry now. I’d steer clear. She sucks worse than my uncle.”

I went to the front desk, prepared to face Ned again, but there was a sign up that read Be Back in Ten. I hopped the counter and spotted what I’d seen the other morning. Under the portable television were several phone books. The most recent was still twenty years old. I quickly walked back to my room lest Ned figure out I was already staying at his no vacancies motel.

I cracked open the book and went straight to the Ws. There was only one Donna Westcott. She and Michael Westcott had lived on the other side of town. Maybe they still did. I looked up homes for sale in town. Wrote down a few addresses for cover and headed out. The Westcotts were out for a stroll when I drove past their home. Michael was using a walker. Donna set the pace, her purple crutches had glitter in the finish and they shimmered in the sun. As I went past them I could hear her saying,

“Come on. I don’t want to be out here all day.”

My reward for finding them was to soak in that big tub. I fell asleep and woke up in cold water. It was dark out and I figured Amanda would be on shift. I had an urge to check on her and see how her day had gone. I dressed, grabbed my ice bucket and walked back down to the office. She was there. Turquoise hair falling in a cascade of curls over one shoulder. She jumped when I walked in.

“Hey there. I’m in need of ice.”

“Sure.” The smile she gave me was a little brittle but I thought about her at the diner.

The way they shunned her. I’d be a little brittle too. She took the bucket from me and went into the manager’s office. I could hear ice trays cracking. When she came out, she seemed okay. I took the bucket from her. “You should get out of town. Go to New York. Chicago. Anywhere but here,” I said.

“Haven’t saved enough yet but when I go, I’m headed to California. I want to put my toes into the Pacific.”

“Good ocean. How much money do you need?”

She shrugged. “A few thousand more, I think. Enough so I have time to see things and not worry. Maybe drive the PCH. Live out my Marilyn Monroe in Hollywood dreams.”
“Have you ever seen Gilda?” She shook her head. “Watch it. That hair with your face—Rita Hayworth all the way.”

Amanda blushed. “Are you drinking alone?”

“I always drink alone.”

“Well that’s sad. We can have a couple of drinks together.”

There were the dimples again. Maybe she was hoping I could give the money she needed to leave town. Maybe she was a lonely as I was. “Come over for drinks,” I said.
When Amanda knocked in my door two hours later, I was half gone on cheap wine. She brought whiskey and molly. “Not polite to show up to someone’s place without a gift.”

“You’re wonderful,” I said.

She handed me a pill. “Want one?”

“Hell yes.”

Blissed out and feeling no pain, we watched movies. Everything I could order on the motel’s cable service. We watched Laura and a documentary about a jewel thief named Doris Payne and, of course, we watched Gilda.

“Is this movie even about Gilda? Ballin and Johnny are fighting their obvious love for one another,” Amanda said. We discussed every part. She rewound and fast-forwarded the movie to prove her points. It was a great night.

I woke up dry-mouthed but happy. It was nearly noon. Amanda groaned as I sat up. “Did we drink everything?”

“Yes, but I’m pretty sure it was the molly that fucked us up so thoroughly.”

She giggled as she stumbled off to the bathroom. I decided to put my face back into the pillow. When I woke again, she was long gone.

Should I stay or should I go? The Clash song started up in my head, which was cruel not only because of the hangover but because it had been Simon’s favorite song and it did not help me one iota. Why did I care? Killing people was not new to me. I could do the Westcotts and be on my way before anyone noticed. I called the number listed in the phone book. A quavering voice said hello.

“Hello, Donna?”

“Yes.” Her voice got a little stronger.

“It’s Cupcake. Our mutual friend talked to me. Is this what you want?”

“Y-yes. It’s hard these days.”

“You both want this?”

“There’s no life without each other.” Her voice was so soft. A little pained.
I thought of my one and only and the running I was doing and the loneliness I couldn’t escape. Suddenly the idea of bringing peace to someone seemed all important.

“I’ll see you soon. Don’t be afraid,” I said.

My next call was to Louie. “I need a gun.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“To do what you asked, I need a gun.”

“Hold on.” He muted the call and I waited. He was whispering when he got back on the phone. “I’m at work and people are probably listening.”

“Unlikely.”

“Hey, I’m still important.”

“Sure you are but if you really thought anyone was watching or listening, you’d never have gotten involved in this.”

He sighed. “Why do you need a gun? They’re seventy-year-old sick people. You can’t take them?”

“You need an insurance payout. It can’t look like a suicide and I’m not interested in bludgeoning them to death so, a gun. Preferably a Beretta.”

“Jesus. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Bring it tonight or I’m gone.”

Half past eight, Louie was at my door with an attitude, a .38 snub-nosed revolver, a handful of bullets, and five hundred dollars. “You’ll get the other half after.”

“This isn’t a Beretta.”

“Best I could do on short notice. Let me guess, you wanted a silencer too?”

I shook my head. “I’m sure they have pillows.”

I changed out of my flipflops and into boots. I grabbed my gloves, parked in town and walked to the Westcotts. I skulked past homes where people were eating their late dinners or still fighting with their kids to take baths or go to bed. The wails of children denied their last half hour of television could be heard. I was glad it was dark enough. That the streets weren’t well-lit. That if anyone glanced out their kitchen window while doing the dishes, I would’ve been nothing more than a shadow. Maybe they’d think they saw someone. Maybe they’d mention it to their spouse, but I’d already be gone and if they heard something like a gunshot later it was still early enough that they could blame it on the television, theirs or the neighbor’s, being turned up too loud. It was the perfect time to shoot someone.
The Westscotts’s tiny home with the unmown lawn had its dying porch light on. I unscrewed it to stop its flickering and plunged the porch back into the darkness of the night. I knocked on the door. I could hear their television on. I knocked again. The television noises stopped.

“Who is it?” Michael Westcott wanted to know.

“I’m Pete’s friend.”

“And?”

I had to smile. He probably challenged everyone, no matter the hour. “I spoke to Donna. She knew I was coming to visit.”

The door opened to the limits of the chain. One blue eye squinted down at me. “Why is it so dark,” he asked.

“I guess your light went out.”

“It’s a little late for a visit, don’t you think?”

“Donna didn’t tell you I was coming?”

“No.”

“Okay. Sorry to bother.” I turned to go.

“Wait. You said you were a friend of Pete’s?”

“Let her in.” Donna called from depths of the house.

He grumbled and the closed the door. I heard the chain coming off and he let me in. Michael Westcott was much taller than me but looked so small bent over in his flannel pajamas.

“I’ll close the door. Go sit,” I said.

More grumbling but he walked slowly over to the end of the couch, sat down and exhaled loudly with the effort. I locked the door and turned off the lights.

“Hey,” Michael said. I pulled the gun from my waistband and walked over to him. I put the muzzle against his head. He was shaking. “Oh, Jesus. Oh, god,” he said.


I hesitated and the barrel of the gun dipped. I wondered about Donna. Michael didn’t seem to know about the plan. Maybe he had dementia. Then he said, “I thought I wouldn’t be afraid. It’s foolish to have been fighting death all this time, letting doctors cut on me a dozen times for a dozen reasons, and now I’m afraid the one time I chose death.” His hand reached up and touched my own. His fingers gently lifted my gloved hand back into position. “I want this. Please, don’t you be afraid too.”

My other hand came up to cover his and together we held the gun. I pulled the trigger. The sound was loud but not too loud. Easily mistaken for his TV show. I lifted his hand from mine and set it carefully on his lap then went to look for Donna.

I turned off lights as I went from room to room. Even the bathroom light was on. I flicked the switch. Hallway light off. Flick. Small bedroom, the son’s old room. Flick. The master bedroom’s door was ajar. I nudged it with my shoe. A bullet went through the door and whizzed past my head, just barely clipping my ear. I hit the floor hard.

“Shit,” Donna said.

“Donna? I’m here just like you asked me to be.”

I only heard the sound of the television. I stayed on my knees and pushed the door
open quickly. I found her and shot her. She was in the corner of the room, in the blind spot. I stepped over to her. She wasn’t dead yet but her breath was ragged.

“Why, Donna? I thought this was what you wanted. If you changed your mind you’ve could’ve said so. You could’ve sent me away.”

“I didn’t want to take care of him anymore.” She coughed.

“You could’ve left.”

“And leave him like that? Besides I didn’t have enough money.” Her eyes rolled up to look at me.

“How does Pete figure into this?”

“He said he’d help. Then he said you would do it but I had to kill you. Make it look like,” a wrenching cough took her words. She coughed again and again and again then she stopped for good.

“Make it look like a robbery or something,” I finished for her. The gun was still in her hand. Of course, she had a Beretta.

I needed to go. Someone definitely heard our gunshots. I checked my ear in the bathroom mirror. It bled a little but nothing that needed a bandage. I turned to leave but something was wrong. I had to figure out what I’d missed. I turned back on lights until I knew. In the son’s room, a shelf of first and second places trophies. All won by Adam Westcott.


The next morning, I was at Walmart buying a couple of bottles of rubbing alcohol and a chef’s knife. I waved at Louie. He frowned but continued to ring up the customer in front of him. I was there to follow him home when he left work early that day.

Outside of his rented duplex, I grabbed my purchases and shoved the Beretta into the waistband of my jeans. I knocked at his door. When it began to open, I threw my body at the door and it bounced off his face. I went in after him.

“I’m sorry, Cupcake. I’m sorry,” he said as he scrambled across the floor reaching for the couch.

I put the Beretta against his skull. He froze. “I told you not to call me that. No one calls me that except Frank and Frank wants me dead. Now get up. Do you have duct tape?”

“Why?”

“Because if you don’t have duct tape, I’m going to have to use extension cord and that will hurt.”

Blood ran from his nose to his lips. He wiped at it and eyed my gun. “Kitchen drawer. Second from the end.”

“Perfect. Now go sit.” I ushered him away from the couch and the gun I figured was hidden there. “I just want to talk. I know you think you can take me but I will shoot you in the stomach and both knees. That way even if you get a hospital in time to fix the hole in your belly, you’ll never walk the same.” He sat in a kitchen chair and put his hands behind his back. I rolled the tape around his wrists and up his arms. More tape went around his chest. I kept adding tape until the roll ran out.

I grabbed a handful of paper towels from the roll over his sink. I pulled a chair over and sat so our knees touched. “You set me up,” I said.

“No, I didn’t. I would never.”

I wiped at his nose and lips so he wouldn’t spit blood at me. “How much does Vegas say I’m worth?”

“It’s not like that,” he said. I put the barrel of the gun against his right eye. “Twenty-five thousand. More if I bring you to them alive.”

I removed the gun from his eye. “And how much will you get from the insurance?”

“The same.”

“You thought you could get paid twice for me.”

“You blame me? You just showed up. It was serendipity. How could I not try?”

“You didn’t even have the balls to take me out yourself.”

Louie struggled against the tape. “Why the hell did you even come here?”

“Does it matter now? Tell me how Amanda figures into this.”

“Are they dead?”

“Yes. Not before Donna got off a shot at me though. Tell me about Amanda.”

“Nothing to tell.”

I raised the gun again. “You said that the son gets the payout and I know Amanda used to be Adam.”

He sighed. “Look, Donna came to me. She said she was exhausted taking care of her husband and trying to keep herself going. There wasn’t enough money to go around.”

“So you offered to help, for a small fee.”

 “Walmart doesn’t pay much.”

“And Amanda?”

“I told her what Donna asked me to do. Told her that if we did it right, she’d get the full payout. She didn’t really like it but she came around eventually. Then I told her I had someone who could do it and we’d never be suspected.”

 “You made sure you were going to get paid, no matter what happened, didn’t you? Do you even care about Amanda?”

He made a face. I got up and turned on his television and found a game show rerun on cable. I turned it up loud.

“You really should have stayed a cashier. Did you think I would let you live after you threatened to tell Vegas where I was?”

“I still have a failsafe. I go missing and- “

“And Amanda won’t have to pay you anything. She won’t cry over you for long.”

I grabbed the bottles of rubbing alcohol and dumped them over his head. He screamed. He screamed louder when I set him on fire. I let him panic for thirty seconds then I shot him in the face. Frank, the man who taught me how to kill, would approve. I tossed the paper towels into the flames. They rolled off and fell next to the wall. I pulled the revolver from the grocery bag and left it with the Beretta on the kitchen counter. The empty alcohol bottles went in the bag with the knife. The wallpaper was just beginning to burn when I left.


Louie got me thinking about Amanda’s access to my room and her desire to live out her Marilyn Monroe dreams. I checked for my money, knowing it was probably gone.
Knowing I’d have to come after her now. I packed my duffel and wiped down the room. After six, I called the desk and lo and behold, Amanda was there.

“Hey, come have a drink with me. I’m leaving. I’ve been killing time in this town for too long,” I said. I slipped the knife into the top drawer of the dresser.

Amanda showed up with ice. Her hair up in a ponytail and black heels on her feet. Her smile was pressed on. “Thought we might need some. We have to toast goodbye.”

“Absolutely.” I poured the last of the whiskey into plastic cups and handed her one.

“To new friends,” she said.

I hopped on to of the dresser and raised my cup. “To liars, killers, and thieves.” We looked at each other.

“That’s an odd toast.”

“Is it? Liars, Louie and you. Killers, me. Thieves, also you.”

She sat down hard in a chair. “I’m sorry.”

“What did I tell you about that? Drink your whiskey.”

“How did you figure it out?”

“Your old bedroom is still intact. I saw Adam’s swimming trophies.”

She closed her eyes. “They were proud of those trophies. I left home to live a life they didn’t agree with and we stopped talking. Then Mom had the stroke and Dad had the surgeries and he was never the same. Was I supposed to give up my life and take care of them? I barely have a life and I had to dedicate it to them and stay in this miserable town?” She was crying now.

“Hey, don’t waste the alcohol.”

She wiped her face and drank her alcohol down and I drank mine.

“You and Louie were fucking?”

She frowned. “Wait, who’s Louie?”

“Pete. Pete is Louie. He was sent to do a job for some people then he talked about them to save his own ass and the government hid him away in this town. Were you going to take the money and leave with him?”

She nodded. “I didn’t know he got you to do it and then he told me, and I didn’t know what to do.”

“You didn’t know he was setting me up?”

“God, no. I swear.”

I set my cup down on the dresser top and pulled the knife from the drawer. “But you searched my room, didn’t you?”

“I search every room. Sometimes I find things.”

I got down off the dresser and approached her, the knife moving back and forth as I walked. I always loved the weight of a knife in my hand. Frank always wanted me to have a gun but give me a knife any day and I will be a happy woman. Unlike Amanda. She didn’t look happy. She was shaking now. “You found my money, but you didn’t leave. You really should’ve left. Where is my money, Amanda?”

“In the room next door.”

“Go get it.”

I followed Amanda outside. She wiped her hands on her jeans and pulled the key from her pocket and tried to open the door but her hands were shaking.
I put my hand on her back and she flinched. “Breathe.” She exhaled a long breath and the key slid into the lock and she pushed open the door. The money was in closet, still in the freezer bags I brought it in. She sat on the bed. “Is it all here?”

She nodded.

“I should kill you.” She started to cry again. I sighed. “Save it. Do you talk to your parents at all?” She shook her head. “What did you do last night.”

“Bowling with some friends in Wichita.”

“Good. When your parents’ bodies are discovered, collect your insurance money, wait a bit, then leave this town.” I got in her face. “Never speak of me to anyone. If you do, I swear I’ll find you.”

She sniffled and nodded.

“Good. Get out. Neither one of us should stay in this town a moment longer than we have to.”

I loaded the truck with my belongings and drove out of town. Maybe I’d drive to Canada or Alaska. Somewhere far enough away that my guilt might fade a little. I knew there was no outrunning guilt, but I still wanted to try. I was glad to be back in the truck. Back on the road. Back to watching for lights in my rearview mirror.


Nikki Dolson is the author of *All Things Violent* (Fahrenheit Press) and her collection of short stories, *Love & Other Criminal Behavior*, is forthcoming from Bronzeville Books.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Man Who Wouldn't, fiction by Joseph S. Walker

I was in the front seat of Roger Hay’s Cadillac, watching the traffic on Interstate 35 and diplomatically pretending that Hay wasn’t behind the wheel coughing his lungs out. I asked if I could help when I first got in and he waved me off sharply, the whole car shaking from the force of his spasms. I sat quietly and waited. The coughing subsided slowly until he was finally able to take a long drink from a bottle of water. He tucked a handkerchief into a breast pocket, both of us carefully not noticing that it was flecked with blood.

“You eat here a lot?” he asked. His voice was a rusted out car on a gravel road. “How do you stand all the damned tourists?”

We were outside the Czech Stop, a combination gas station and Czech bakery in West, Texas, about halfway between Dallas and Austin. I’d suggested it as a meeting place when Hay had called and said he was driving down from Dallas and wanted to talk. For the most part it looked like any other gas station, but there was a big parking lot to the side and there was always a line at the bakery counter.

“Best kolaches in the state,” I said. “If they served liquor I’d buy a camper and live in the parking lot.”

“I’ve done campaign events here,” he said. “Never again.

Everybody’s more interested in the fucking food than voting.” I couldn’t tell if he was stalling or reminding me who he was. “We’ve met before, you know.”

“I’m impressed you remember. That was twenty years ago, Tom Brennan’s ’88 Senate campaign.”

“You were with the Austin department then, on the family’s security detail,” Hay said. “Then you joined the Rangers. Then you retired, and now you’re private.”

“All true,” I said. “I assume you know I wasn’t popular with some of my coworkers.”

“Immaterial.” Hay was fifty years into a career as one of the most powerful political strategists, dealmakers and back-room hustlers in Texas. He hadn’t survived by talking to people before he knew their stories. “Major Andrews says you can be trusted completely.”

“Good to hear.” I sipped the to-go coffee I’d bought with my bag of pastries. “What can I do for you, Mr. Hay?”

He drummed his fingers on the wheel. “You were around the family in ’88. You must have met Jackie.”

He meant Jack Brennan, Tom’s son. Fifth generation of political Brennans, now halfway through his first term in the US House. “Sure,” I said. “He was, what, fifteen at the time. Sharp kid, if I recall right.”

“You do,” Hay said. “Top of his class at UT School of Law.”

Even through his torn-up throat Hay said UT like I was supposed to genuflect.

“And then the service,” I said.

Hay nodded. “Texas National Guard. Two tours in Iraq. Filed for his Congressional run the day he got out.”

“Got yourself a golden boy,” I said. “Tom must be proud.”

His mouth twitched at that. “Everything I’m about to tell you is in strictest confidence,” he said. “Jackie is on the short list to be Clinton’s running mate.”

I raised an eyebrow. “After one term in the House?”

“Hillary’s big negatives are going to be her age and her vote for the invasion. Not popular these days. Having a youthful war hero from a red state on the ticket checks a lot of boxes.”

“From what I read, her big problem is going to be Mr. Art of the Deal.”

Hay snorted. “I’ve been in this game a long time, Collins,” he said. “This country might, just might, be ready for a woman. It isn’t ready for a clown with a ridiculous combover and less brainpower than your average lab rat. Bank it, he’s just trying to boost his personal brand so he can slap his name on more ugly buildings.”

“Okay,” I said. “Vice President Brennan, and God bless Texas. Where do I come into this rosy picture?”

Hay reached into the back seat and handed me an envelope. “This was on my desk when I got to my office this morning.”

I took it, holding it by the edges from long training. It was a 9x12 manila envelope. Hay’s name had been written in block letters in marker, along with the word Personal, underlined three times.

“Somebody just walked in and left this?” I said. “Don’t you have security?”

“In theory,” Hay said. “Now you know why I’m coming to you instead.”

Inside the envelope was an 8x10 photograph. It was a little fuzzy, like it had been blown up from a smaller one, but the subjects were clear enough: four young men in khaki and camo, sitting around a folding table in front of a tent, desert visible in the background. Playing cards and bottles of beer were scattered on the table. The four men were looking at the camera, grinning and laughing. Jackie Brennan, his central casting good looks immediately identifiable, was one of the men. He had his arm around the shoulder of one of the others, a smaller man with jet black hair.

There was nothing else in the envelope. The back of the photo was blank. “I don’t get it,” I said.

“Look again at the guy by Jackie.” I peered at the face more closely. “Christ,” I said. “Is that Wilson Bloom?”

“Yeah,” Hay bit out. “Wilson fucking Bloom.”

I should have been quicker to recognize one of the most hated faces in America. Wilson Bloom was a good Baptist kid from Mississippi who, somehow, got radicalized during his tour in Iraq. Six months after being deployed he snuck a group of insurgents into his base in the middle of the night and joined them in a surprise attack. Twenty-nine American soldiers died, making Bloom the most famous traitor since Benedict Arnold. Four months ago he was finally captured. He was currently in a brig on an American destroyer while the brass tried to decide whether to put him on trial, send him to Gitmo, or just drop him off the side of the boat.

“Okay,” I said. “Not a great visual, but you could spin this. Say the betrayal toughened Jackie up. Or, hell, just say it was photoshopped.”

“Of course I can spin it,” Hay snapped, his voice breaking. “I’ve spun worse. But just the existence of that image is enough to keep Jackie off the ticket, maybe even keep him from holding his seat. And what worries me is there’s no note. No demand, no blackmail, no announcement that the picture is going to the press. I need to know who sent this and what the hell they want.”

“What does Jackie want to do?”

“Jackie doesn’t know about this until I decide he should. Which is never.”

I nodded. “I get four hundred a day and expenses.”

“Good enough. You want the job?”

I looked out the windshield. I could take 35 back the way I came and just keep going. Pick up Interstate 10 in Houston. Twenty-four hours of hard driving and I could be in Key West with a completely different group of tourists, waiting for the sunset and drinking something tropical. It sounded like a lot more fun than digging around in Jackie Brennan’s closets. But like my old man used to say, if it was fun, they wouldn’t have to pay you. “Sure,” I said.

***


Hay gave me a thousand dollars in hundreds and a thumb drive with the personnel files of the people in his office. He wouldn’t let me take the photo, and only when I got insistent did he reluctantly let me take a picture of it with my phone. I watched him have another volcanic coughing fit before he drove off, then sat in my own car looking at the image.

I could track backwards from Hay’s office, or forward from the picture. My gut told me the picture was more promising, but my client didn’t want me talking to Jackie, and I had a better chance of going bar hopping with George Clooney than of ever getting within a hundred miles of Wilson Bloom. That left the two other Marines in the picture, one a lanky redhead, the other bearded and dark with a gym rat’s physique. Neither was considerate enough to be wearing a nametag, and Hay hadn’t known their names. That was discouraging, so I looked at the pictures of Ben Franklin in my new stack of bills and felt a little better.

“The game is afoot,” I said out loud. A woman walking past my car turned and looked at me. I winked and drove away before she could ask me what the hell I was talking about.

***


Twenty-four hours later I still had no idea who the bearded Marine was, but I knew that the redhead’s name was Peter Mulligan and that he worked at one of the five hundred financial firms that had sprung up like weeds in Austin over the last couple of decades. I’d like to say that I got this information at a sleazy underworld bar from a slinky blonde in a painted-on dress, but mother told me never to lie. I got it the same way every other PI gets 90% of his info these days: by sitting in front of a keyboard and mercilessly pounding it into submission.

I couldn’t quickly get a list of everyone in Jackie’s unit, but I found a wire report from his initial deployment, quoting a bunkmate who said that the Senator’s son was getting no special treatment. The bunkmate had a wife, and the wife had a Facebook account and a few hundred friends, mostly the parents or partners of other soldiers. I sent friend requests to everyone on the list and enough of them accepted to give me access to reams of pictures and posts. It’s the digital equivalent of pushing every button in an apartment building’s foyer, knowing somebody will buzz you in.

Five hours in, just as my eyes were starting to cross, I found Mulligan, tagged in a group shot taken at a backyard barbecue the year before. He’d put on some weight in civilian life, but the shade of his hair and a mole on his cheek were unmistakable. That gave me his name and led me to his own Facebook page, which seemed to consist of nothing but links to stories about the UT football team. However, Mulligan’s mother posted several times a day. She was obsessed with breathlessly reporting her son’s triumphs and blissfully ignorant of privacy concerns. From Mama Mulligan I learned about Peter’s successful completion of the business degree he’d started in the service and his hiring, five months back, by an investment firm she wrote of in giddily hyperbolic terms. Since she was also giddily hyperbolic about her new coffee maker, I reserved judgment.

My back was aching, but I kept at it for another several hours before tumbling into bed at around three. I never saw the bearded man.

***


By eleven in the morning I was in the plaza outside the building where Mulligan worked, pretending to be engrossed in my phone. Back when I was first trained on surveillance, they told us that loitering like this was risky, too conspicuous. There’s only so long you can pretend to be reading one newspaper. Smartphones solved the hell out of this problem. Now you’re suspicious if you’re not sitting in one spot staring at your hand for hours on end.

At 12:40 Mulligan came out of the building carrying a paper bag and a bottled water. He walked two blocks to the 1st Street bridge and walked across. He wasn’t rushing, but he was a recent vet with thirty years advantage on me. I lost him for a couple of minutes before I spotted him strolling into the park. It was a pleasant spring day and there were lots of people around, walking dogs and pushing strollers. Mulligan found an empty bench near the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was halfway through his sandwich when I sat down beside him.

“Mr. Mulligan,” I said. He looked at me, smiling the smile of a man who hasn’t yet memorized all his clients’ faces. I held up my phone, letting him see the picture. “A few minutes of your time?”

The smile deflated as he absorbed what he was looking at. He looked around at the crowded park, seeing something different than he had a few minutes ago. “You a reporter or a cop?” he asked.

“Used to be a cop. Private now. Name’s Collins.” “Either way,” Mulligan said. He dropped the remaining part of his sandwich back into the bag. “I got nothing to say about Wilson Bloom.”

“Me neither,” I said. “What you got to say about Jack Brennan?”

That threw him. “Jackie?”

“The very same son of the lone star state.”

He shook his head. “You might as well walk away now. I got nothing to say about him either.”

“I think you’ve got the wrong idea. I’m not looking to hurt Brennan.” He shook his head slowly, staring off into the distance.

Pushing wasn’t going to do any good. I leaned back, looking around at the park. It was early in the year yet but you could pick out the tourists, taking pictures of the statue and the skyline across the river. The South by Southwest festival had been a couple of weeks back, flooding the city with hipsters and music nerds. I always find a reason to be out of town for the festival.

“A lot of vets I know wouldn’t come here,” I said. “The open spaces, the crowds.”

He was quiet for so long I thought he was just going to wait me out.

“I know those guys,” he said finally. He still didn’t look at me. “I don’t blame them. Me, I like it. I like watching people who aren’t looking over their shoulders all day.”

This time I was quiet.

“You never served,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

“I didn’t,” I said. “I’ve been shot at. Shot back a few times.”

“I respect that,” he said. “But it ain’t the same.”

“No. It’s not.”

We were quiet together. There was a guy a dozen feet from us, spray painted silver and standing on a box, pretending to be another statue.

Every few minutes he jerked into a new position, sending nearby kids into screams of startled laughter. Over on Riverside Drive a bus pulled away from the curb at a bad angle and the mirror banged loudly against a steel traffic sign. Mulligan’s jerk was barely noticeable.

“I got ten minutes before I’m due back,” he said. “Say your piece.”

“The picture I showed you,” I said. “It turned up in Brennan’s offices. His people need to know if somebody’s sending a message, and what it is.”

He took a breath, considering.

“Look,” I said. “You got anything against Brennan?”

“I’d die for the man,” he said.

“Okay. So if I’m lying and I’m out to hurt him, I’ve already got the picture. That’s all anybody would need to sink him, so you can’t do any harm by talking to me. But if I’m telling the truth.”

“Yeah,” he said. “What do you need?”

I held the phone up again. “I need to know who the fourth guy is, and who took the picture.”

He frowned. “Can’t Jackie tell you that?”

“It’s politics, Peter. His people haven’t told him about this. They can’t, in case somebody asks.”

Mulligan shook his head. “He always said that would happen. That his family would wipe the sand off him and pour him into a suit. Always said that if the day came when we couldn’t come around for a beer to shoot him.”

“Had a beer with him lately?”

“I don’t get to Washington much.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. If I never talk to him again he’s still my brother.”

“Okay,” I said. “Your brother doesn’t know it, but he needs help.”

He sighed. “Bearded guy is Stu Coleman,” he said. “Picture was taken by Andy Fleck.”

I wrote the names down. “Either of them have reason to be holding a grudge against Brennan?”

“Wouldn’t matter if they did,” Mulligan said. “They were both dead a week after that. Died in Bloom’s attack.” He stood up.

“Jesus,” I said. “Anybody else? Anyone in the unit who might come after Jackie?”

“Fuck no,” Mulligan said. “Jackie was a good guy. Kind of guy who’d carry your pack on top of his own and crack jokes the whole time.

Everybody loved him. Plus he saved at least twenty lives that night.”

“Okay,” I said. I got a card out of my wallet. “You think of anything else call me.”

He put the card in his pocket without looking at it. Another pricy piece of embossing wasted. “Anything I can do for Brennan,” he said. “You call me.”

“One last thing, Peter. You ever seen the picture before?”

“No,” he said. “And I hope to Christ I never see it again.”

***


I sat on the bench for a long time after Mulligan left. I was remembering the Jack Brennan I’d met twenty years ago, the handsome but awkward kid who seemed overwhelmed by everything happening to his family and just wanted to be left alone with his fantasy novels. Every time I saw Representative Brennan, the passionate social crusader, on TV, I had to remind myself it was the same person. A lot had changed since his dad’s time. It takes guts to be a Democrat in Texas these days, even if your district is reliably liberal Austin. And now there was this third Jack Brennan, the war hero, the universally popular GI. If I tracked down people he’d known at college I wondered if I’d hear about some fourth version. Brennan could play six degrees of separation all by himself. Then I remembered some things about who I was twenty years ago.

A drinker. Married.

Young.

I got off the bench. There was a job to do and I had two new names to play with.

As it turned out, I only needed one.

***


The offices of Hay Political Consulting took up one whole floor in a fairly anonymous office building just a couple of blocks from where Peter Mulligan worked. Hay could have had an office in any of the luxury skyscrapers that have sprung up in Austin recently, but he had never seen a reason to move out of the slightly seedy space he’d been in for half a century. His whole job, after all, was not to be overly visible.

He’d given me a pass for the building, and the day after I talked to Mulligan I used it. At ten in the morning I got off the elevator on Hay’s floor and strolled casually through the front door. There was no receptionist, just a maze of offices and open spaces. Everybody I could see was either on the phone or engrossed in a computer screen or both. Nobody challenged me. Nobody so much as glanced at me. Either Hay had fired his security or they were even worse than he’d said.

I followed the sound of copying machines to the bottom of the totem pole. The fourth door I poked my head into was what I was looking for. In a pinch three people might have fit into the room, if they were prepared to get to know each other very well. There was a desk that looked like the one I’d used in the first grade, a laptop computer, and a plain wooden chair. The young woman sitting on it had brown hair in an unruly pile on top of her head and was wearing a red power suit that looked like it had come straight off the set of Working Girl. She looked up, startled, as I lurked my way into blocking her door.

“Irma Helm?” I said.

“Um. Yes?” She picked up a pen, put it back down.

“Come with me.” I turned and walked back toward the central part of the office, hearing her scramble behind me to get around the tiny desk.

“Am I in trouble?” she asked, almost jogging to keep up with me. She was barely five feet tall, a good match for the room she’d been shoved into. “I swear I’ll have the Waco polls compiled by five.”

“No trouble,” I said. I didn’t want to give her the chance to start wondering who the hell I was. “Couple quick questions to clear up.” I’d spotted the door to Hay’s office on my first cycle. There was a desk for a receptionist but nobody was sitting at it. I knocked and opened the door without waiting for an answer. As soon as the door was open we could hear Hay, sounding like he was trying to forcibly evict a lung. Irma shrank back but I took her by the elbow and steered her in, closing the door behind us.

There was nothing opulent about Hay’s office. It was a working man’s space, with ancient metal filing cabinets along one wall. The shelves behind the desk were stacked high with papers and books, the desk itself bare aside from a computer and a rolodex the size of an engine block. The windows faced east but newer buildings blocked what must have once been an impressive view of the State Capitol building. The only sign of indulgence was a tray to the side of the desk with an assortment of bottles and glasses.

Hay was hunched over, hacking into a wad of tissues. He looked up in surprise as we came in and spun his chair to face away from us.

“We should go,” Irma said.

“He’ll be all right in a minute,” I said. I took her to one of the two chairs on this side of the desk and got her seated, then leaned against the wall.

Hay slowly came back to normal. He put his hands on his knees and took some deep breaths that only rattled a little. He dropped the tissues into a trash can and swung around to consider us as he drank from a glass of ice water. “Collins,” he rasped out. “You could knock.”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Hay,” Irma said. “He made me come in.”

Hay looked at her. “I’ve seen you,” he said.

“Roger Hay, Irma Helm,” I said. “Irma has worked here for two months. She does data entry in an office that would make a housefly claustrophobic.”

“Right,” Hay said. “It’s a busy place, Collins. We’re working on about two dozen national and state campaigns.”

“I’m not complaining,” Irma said quickly. “I just want to help.”

“Irma was a good hire,” I said. “Impressive application. The degree in political science from UT jumps out at you, but if you look a little deeper you’ll find her emergency contact is her mother, Emily Fleck.” I shifted my attention to Irma. “Andy Fleck was your half-brother.”

“Yes,” she said. “But I don’t understand what’s happening here.”

“Who’s Andy Fleck?” Hay asked.

“A soldier and photographer,” I said. “He took the picture you saw a couple of days ago, and then shortly afterwards died when Wilson Bloom turned.” I walked over behind Irma’s chair and put a hand on her shoulder. “Andy sent the picture to you, didn’t he?”

She had clasped her hands between her knees and was looking at the floor. “It was an email just a few hours before he died,” she said. “Teasing me about how handsome Jack—Mr. Brennan was. How he was going to set us up when they came home.”

“All right,” I said, easing into the other chair. “Irma, do you blame Mr. Brennan for Andy’s death? Do you want to hurt his career?”

“What?” She looked startled, then angry. “Of course not! Jackie was Andy’s best friend. They took care of each other.” She turned to appeal to Hay. “Sir, I only came to work here because I was grateful. Because I wanted to give something back to him.”

“Then why did you give me this?” Hay wheezed out. He opened a side drawer of his desk and held up the folder.

She shook her head. “I don’t know what that is,” she said.

“It’s the picture, Irma,” I said. “Jackie with Wilson Bloom, plus Peter Mulligan and Stu Coleman. It was left on Mr. Hay’s desk two days ago.”

“I didn’t do that,” she said. “I swear. I printed the picture, but not for that.”

“What did you do with it?” I asked.

“She gave it to me.”

I turned my head. The door was open and Jackie Brennan was leaning against the frame. He was wearing a tie but no jacket and had his sleeves rolled to his forearms. He looked for all the world like he was about to give a speech about American jobs to a bunch of guys in hard hats. I stood up as he came into the room, closing the door behind him. He walked over and shook my hand.

“Sit, please,” he said. “I don’t believe we’ve—no, wait. We ha

ve met before.” He cocked his head. “But I seem to remember a uniform.” “Long time ago, sir,” I said. “My name’s Collins. I was on security for your father’s ’88 run.”

“Of course,” he said. He smiled, and it was easy to believe that he’d been waiting twenty years just to see me again. “Officer Collins. Thank you for all you did then, but,” he turned to Hay, “what are you doing here now, if I may ask?”

“She gave this to you,” Hay said. He had the picture out of the envelope.

“She did,” Jackie said. “Last weekend. It was very kind of her.”

“I thought he’d like to have it,” Irma said. “I wanted him to know how grateful to him I was. Did I do something wrong?”

“Of course not,” Jackie said. He went over and hitched up a leg to half perch on the window sill. I settled back into my chair. “It makes me happy to know that Andy spoke so well of me.”

“Then yo

u put the picture on Hay’s desk,” I said.

“I did.” “Why?” Hay sounded half crazed. “What the hell were you hoping would happen?” “Frankly, Roger,” Jackie said, “I was hoping you would retire, or at least drop this Clinton insanity. I know how hard you’ve been pushing her people. You need to stop. I can’t possibly be on the ticket.”

“Why not?” Hay demanded.

“Because I won’t do it,” Jackie said, and just that quickly all the political polish dropped out of his voice. It was like a new person had come into the room. Yet another Jackie. “After what happened. Not just Bloom. All of it. Everything I saw happen to people who didn’t deserve any of it. I won’t ever send a single American soldier into harm’s way, for any reason, anywhere in the world.”

“As I understand it,” I said quietly, “that’s kind of a central component of the job.”

Jackie nodded. “It is the job,” he said. “So I can’t do the job. I was hoping . . . I was hoping that the picture would save me from having to say that out loud.”

“You should say it,” Irma said. “Everybody should. Andy would still be alive.”

“Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so,” I said.

“You won’t do it,” Hay hissed. I had never heard such contempt.

Jackie stirred uncomfortably. “I’m grateful for all you’ve done, Roger.”

“Grateful.” Hay put his hands on the desk and looked at Brennan. I could see a vein pulsing in his temple. “You little shit.”

“Careful, Roger.”

“Fifty years,” Hay said. “Do you know where I was fifty years ago, you little shit? In an office just like this one, talking to your grandfather. The greatest man I ever knew. He’d just given me a job. He gave me my first real drink and had me toast with him. And do you know what we toasted? To President Brennan. To putting a member of the family in the White House.”

“Grandad was a dreamer,” Jackie said.

“Fifty goddamn years,” Hay said, enunciating every word. “Every goddamn day. The party wouldn’t touch him because his wife wouldn’t stop crawling into the bottle. Then there was your father, who was too fucking stupid even by Washington standards. And your uncle Frank, who couldn’t stay away from the girls, and your uncle Jim, who couldn’t stay away from the boys, and your cousin Tad, who couldn’t stay away from the goddamn track.”

“Easy now, Roger,” Jackie said.

Hay was breathing hard, his voice strangled. “And finally we get you. Smart, good-looking, all the right tools. This has been my life, you little shit. My life. And you won’t?”

“No, Roger,” Brennan said. “I won’t.”

“Fucking right,” Hay said. His hand went into the open drawer and came out with a revolver. I jerked out of my chair as Irma screamed and the gun came around to face Brennan. The sound was the same as it always is, flatter than TV makes you think it will be.

***


One other thing I was, twenty years ago.

Faster.

###



Joseph S. Walker is a member of the Mystery Writers of America whose work has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, and a number of anthologies. In 2019 his stories won both the Al Blanchard Award and the Bill Crider Prize. He lives in Indiana and teaches online literature courses.