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

Monday, May 31, 2021

To Die For, fiction by Larry Thacker

Part I

        “Jerald always did like it real hot, but there ain’t no food hot enough to stop his damn heart, I don’t care if they were the ‘hottest wings in West Virginia,’ which I doubt they are.” 
        Mabel was talking like she was trying to be quiet, but loud enough to be heard. It was one of those things. Emmy and Mabel were standing in the parking lot of Freddy the Wing Man’s Hottest Wings in West Virginia out by the hand-painted sign that said so. 
        They’d just finished the all-day drive from down in southeast Kentucky.
        Mabel sniffed. 
        “You smell that?” 
        Emmy sniffed. 
        “No,” Mabel said, quieter now. “I smell a rat.” 
        They strolled into Freddy’s as if they owned the place, just like they’d talked about doing on the way up. Confidence, that’s what Emmy said they needed to show when they got to wherever they were headed. The Google map hadn’t said they were headed that far back into BFE, but hours and hours later, here they were, smack dab in the middle of it.  
        “Pick a table, any table, and sit, just like our names were engraved on it,” Emmy laughed. But she was quite serious about the job at hand. 
        “That’s what we’ll do,” Mabel agreed. 
        “And we’ll order without looking at the menu,” Emmy continued, pretty happy with her plan. 
        Mabel wasn’t so sure about that level of confidence. 
        “What if they don’t have what we order? We’d look stupid. We’ll have to say we thought we were somewhere else.” 
        Yes. Emmy agreed. 
        “On-line menu?” 
        “You’re so smart,” Emmy told her sister.
        Sure enough, Freddy’s had a website, albeit one a fifth-grader probably designed, but a website nonetheless. Typical fare. Pulled pork barbeque. Brisket sandwich. Homemade french-fries. Soup beans. Corn bread. Hushpuppies. Cheeseburgers. “Hottest wings in West Virginia.” Regular and boneless. Etc.
        “And a large order of a bunch of damn liars, I betcha,” Emmy sneered. 
        “Yep. Shoot. I’m hungry now,” Mabel said, staring at the menu as her stomach growled. 
        “Hey now, I hear that,” Emmy shot back, “we can’t enjoy a meal here, remember? They killed Jerald. Probably.” 
        Mabel huffed. “Well, maybe he did have a massive heart attack from this place’s hot-ass food. He was on cholesterol medicine, wasn’t he?” 
        “That and who knows what else.” 
        They strolled in like they ate there every day. They picked a booth right in the middle of things so they could watch the whole place coming and going. The entrance. The restrooms. The bar. The kitchen window and swinging door. The register. Where the waitresses hung out. All three of them, by the back door they had cracked open so they could smoke. The joint stank in that good way, all built-up with that incense of cheeseburgers, ancient grease, burnt in cigarette fumes, vinegar, and barbeque smoke from the drum cooker out back. A slick film covered the laminated menus like morning dew. Sweat trailed the inside corners of the windowpanes. It was a tacky dump, but comfortable enough. 

        “Which one you think he hit on first,?” Mabel asked Emmy, glancing at the three waitresses by the door, a blonde, a redhead, and a brunette. 
        “All of them, eventually. He wouldn’t discriminate.” 
        The redhead tossed half a smoke out the door with a bothered smirk and walked their way. 
        “Hey, y’all.”
        This was Carrie. 
        “My name’s Carrie, I’ll take care of y’all, know what you wanna drink?”
        She gave her opening in one long statement without taking a breath. 
        “Only got Pepsi products.” 
        “What I meant, honey.” 
        “You do got water, without lemon?” 
        They were off to a good start. 
        Another girl, Sandy, the blonde, took care of them after that. She was a little older. Seemed a little less easily shaken up. 
        “Y’all ladies know what cha want?”
        They didn’t look at the menus. Hadn’t looked at them. 
        “Brisket sandwich,” Emmy said. “Fries. Half the salt.” 
        “Pulled pork. No bun. Onion rings,” Mabel said. “Side salad. Honey mustard.” 
        Sandy didn’t write anything down. She walked over to the bar and yelled back their order. “One slab, drop some fancy fries, pull the hog without the bread, drop some crybabies, toss the lettuce!” 

        The food was out quickly. Bella, the brunette, was up. Sandy was nowhere to be found. 
        “Enjoy, y’all. Just yell if you need anything.” 

        They took the place in as they ate. 
        “You think he was at the bar when it happened?” Emmy wondered.
        “Probably. That way he could talk with the girls as they worked.” 
        “Bet he liked the brunette.” 

        Bella came walking back. 
        “Good Lord, Emmy whispered, “It’s like that same woman but a little older every time.” 
        “Bet they’re sisters,” Mabel agreed. 

        “How ‘bout some dessert? Got any room left?”  
        She slid the ticket on the table between the girls. 
        “Nothin else?” 
        “Actually,” Mabel blurted out, shooting Emmy the look, “we’d like to know just exactly how our brother, Jerald, died.” 
        Bella was stunned. 
        “What now?”
        “Our brother. Jerald. Died in this very restaurant a month ago. I guess from eating your’all’s hottest wings in By God West Virginia.”
        Sweet sarcasm dripped from Mabel’s voice like pulled pork after-breath.  

        Bella blinked. 
        “Sandy, honey, you and Carrie wanna come over for a second?”  
        Emmy figured Mabel had screwed up. Too soon, she thought. They were in trouble, whatever that might look like. The other two bebopped over. 
        “These two ladies say they’re that fella’s sisters, the one that died doing Freddy’s Fiery Fifteen. Remember, girls?” 
        “Oh?” they both said, more curious than territorial. 
        “We’re real sorry about your brother,” Carrie offered. The others nodded. 
        Mabel just wouldn’t quit.
        “Yeah, thanks. So, what the hell is a Freddy’s Fiery Fifteen?” 
        “Freddy’s Fiery Fifteen?” Carrie asked. 
        “The hottest fifteen wings in West Virginia?” asked Sandy.
        “AKA, fifteen minutes in hot chicken hell?” asked Bella. 
        “I reckon all that, yeah,” replied Mabel, beginning to lose patience. 
        “Oh, it’s famous. That’s the Wall of Wing Wonders over yonder,” Carrie offered, pointing toward the corner near the dead jukebox. “Jerald was a-trying to get on that, plus get a free t-shirt, when, uh, the thing happened. Freddy said we should give it to him anyway, so Jerald ended up being number twenty-eighth, post-humanly.” 
        “You mean, posthumously?” Mabel corrected. 
        “What’s that?’ 
        Sandy was apologetic. “We called Rex at the paper about a news photo, about Jerald going for the record and all, about the time he was half through the pile, but by the time he got here all he managed was a shot of the ambulance in the parking lot. So that’s all we’ve got for him right now, photo wise.”  
        Bella asked sheepishly, “Y’all wouldn’t happen to have a photo of him, would you? For the wall?”
        Emmy was beginning to wonder if these girls were kin. 
        “You sisters or something,” Mabel asked.
        “I was wondering the same thing,” Emmy said. 
        “Naw, but we act like it when we ain’t arguing over men or something else stupid,”            Sandy laughed. “That’s Freddy, back there a-cookin. He’s the owner, but I guess you knew that figuring his name’s on the building and all.”
        “And the hottest wings belong to him, too, right?” Emmy said. 
        “He’s proud. Ain’t cha, Freddy Jo?” Carrie yelled back.
        The man in the back, slapping around pans and making things sizzle, glanced out to them and nodded. 
        “He ain’t much for words. He likes to express himself through his culinary adventures,” Bella offered. 
Emmy asked, “Any you all kin to him?”
One responded, “Probably. Never checked.” 

Emmy asked the obvious question. 
“So, where’d it happen? Where’d old Jerald bite the dust? Or the hot wing, rather.”
All three of the women turned at once, but in three different directions before Sandy spoke up and pointed to the bar area. “Second to last on the right.”  
Bella said, “He was a character. Telling jokes and stories. Flirting.” 
“Yep, that’s our Jer,” Emmy said. 
Mabel added, “Jerald ran the roads. Nobody knows why he was this far up into West Virginia anyway. He retired from the mines early, so he didn’t have anywhere to be. He’d go out driving and not come back for a week. He called us from Vegas once, saying he’d onewon five-thousand dollars and wasn’t coming back ‘til he was broke.” 
Carrie laughed and said, “Yep, sounds like him,” but shut up real fast when she got side-eye from Bella who then offered, “We didn’t know him that well, of course, but he seemed like the adventurous sort, yes.”  

The side door, where the women smoked, creaked open. A girl, in her twenties, peeked in. The women noticed. 
“Hold on, honey,” Bella told her with a wave of the hand.  
“Freddy, you got lunch ready for Rachel?”
Freddy clanged around another minute and called out, “Order up!” sliding several to go boxes up on the pickup window. 
“Who’s that,” Mabel asked, nodding at the waiting girl. 
“Oh, that’s just a girl from down the street picking up an order. She’s shy,” Carrie said.  

But this girl was more worried looking than shy, Emmy thought. She raised a brow to her sister, a hint that they ought to pay attention to the girl. At this point, everything was important. Bella was handing over the boxes of food to the girl. She didn’t pay. They whispered at each other at the door. The girl shot Emmy and Mabel a quick glance, as if Bella had mentioned the customers. 

Mabel was already laying down thirty dollars. “That’s for the tip, too, y’all. We’re heading out. C’mon Em.” 
        Mabel was already standing up. “Appreciate y’all.” 
        “Why’d you rush us out like that?” Emmy wanted to know.  
        Mabel had Emmy’s hand, leading her across the parking lot. “Get in,” her sister ordered. 
        Mabel had the car started, in drive, and was pulling out before Emmy could get buckled. “Hush for a minute,” Mabel ordered, straining to see across the lot and past the restaurant up an alley. She pulled out quickly but quietly, out of the lot and into the alley. 
There she was, the girl from the side doorway, carrying three stacked Styrofoam to-go boxes. Her jet black hair was back in a ponytail showing off naked shoulders from a tight red tube top showing skin from her ribs to her low slung blue jean cut off shorts.
        “What’s that look like to you, sister,” Mabel asked, keeping back so the girl didn’t notice them. 
        Emmy laughed. “A hooker getting takeout,” she joked. 
        “Exactly,” Mabel said. 
        Emmy quit her laughing. “You serious?” 

        The girl kept on then made a right down a dirt lane. She apparently didn’t live “down the road” as much as she did out back.
        Mabel parked and they watched. 
        The set of three tiny trailers she was headed for were practically in the backyard of the restaurant. The trailers were singlewides from back in the seventies. Hardly any room in between. Lots of dirt patches, not much grass. A girl stuck her head out the door of the first one and yelled. The girl reached up and handed her some lunch. Another girl popped her head out from another trailer. Same thing. 
        Emmy offered, “Maybe she’s just the cute little delivery girl?”
        The girl then made her way to the last trailer and let herself in. 
        “Guess not,” Mabel said.   

        Emmy, always willing to offer the benefit of the doubt and never rushing to judgement too quickly, said, “You don’t think that’s what it might be, do you?”
        Mabel, the oldest of the two, usually the most cynical, and usually the first in line to call things like she saw them, said, “Yep. Them there’s some tramp trailers. I bet they glow bright red at night.” 
        “Really?” Emmy asked, definitely the most gullible of the two. 
        “I betcha. And they’re probably on springs.” 

        They drove back around a little before sundown. Parked where they had a good view and hunkered down. 
        Eventually the door of the middle trailer creaked open. A man stumbled down the two concrete steps to the gravel and dirt. A girl in a black silk housecoat waved him off. He meandered over and went to knocking on the third trailer’s aluminum door. He yelled for someone. No one answered. He sat in a sun lounger at the head of the trailer, looking like he’d drift off. 
        Another man eventually exited the third trailer. The girl they’d followed earlier came out with him and walked him down. They both looked at the man, now asleep in the lounger.
        They shook him by the shoulder. He stirred and got up. They all talked for a minute before the two men walked down the dirt lane and away from the little trailer park. They were both a little drunk. 
        “They either just got done visiting with their girlfriends or they’ve been spending a little payday cash,” Mabel whispered. 
        Emmy replied, “It is the first of the month, ain’t it?” 

        They positioned themselves up the alley the next day and waited on the girl, hoping to catch her if she came around again for lunch. Maybe that was the routine, they hoped. That she picked up lunch everyday for the others. 
        Sure enough, like clockwork, the girl exited her trailer and strolled out to the alley and toward them. She was a pretty girl. Yep, mid-twenties? Long black hair that could use washing. Strong jaw. Dark eyes. Curves you could see from down any road. 
        They looked away as she got closer. She was on her phone. 
        “Time for lunch, I guess,” Emmy whispered.   
        “Hey, they need their strength, right? They burn the calories, I bet.” 

        Mabel and Emmy had helped themselves to two sun loungers in front of the girl’s place by the time she returned. She’d noticed them as she turned the corner carrying lunch, so after stopping off at the first trailer the girl wasn’t alone. Another girl was with her now and they were headed their way. 
        Mabel and Emmy stood. 
        “Do we need to call Freddy back here?” the delivery girl asked with some attitude. 
        Mabel shot Emmy a look. That might have answered a lot of questions right there.            Mabel spoke up. “I don’t reckon Freddy’s got anything to do with why we’re back here.”
        “Y’all wives or something?” the new girl from the first trailer asked, also with attitude. 
        “Naw, Melissa,” the first girl said, “these are that fella that died’s sisters, come to investigate.” She said investigate sarcastically. 
        So people were talking? 
        “I didn’t realize we were causing a problem?” Emmy offered. 
        “Don’t reckon I see anything that could cause a problem,” the second girl said, with more attitude. 
        Mabel and Emmy were out of their depth.  
        “Listen,” Mabel said, trying another angle, “we’re only here to figure out what happened with our brother.”
        The second girl said, “Oh, he’s the one that had the heart attack up in the restaurant a while back?” 
        “That’s what we were told, yes,” Mabel answered. “We’re his sisters. I’m Mabel, this is Emily.” 
        “Rachel,” the delivery girl said.
        “Melissa,” the second girl said.
        “You remember anything other than him having a heart attack,” Mabel asked. 
        “Other than that, we ain’t got nothing to tell you about it,” Melissa claimed. “We weren’t even around when it happened, ain’t that right, Rach?
        Melissa liked to do most of the talking. 
        “We went up when the ambulance came.” 
        “Surprised you could get off from work,” Mabel let slip. 
        They all went quiet. 
        “I don’t reckon you know us good enough to talk about how we make a living,” Melissa snapped. 
        “Y’all sure were making a living last night, huh?” Emmy laughed. 
        “Y’all ain’t got escorts where you’re from?” Melissa sniped.
        Mabel chimed in, “Where you escorting to, your living room to your bedroom?” 
        “…all the way to the bank…up high,” Melissa yelled offering a high-five to Rachel, trying to do the funny. 

        “That didn’t amount to a hill of beans,” Emmy said, once they were in the car. 
        “We know more than we did. Freddy knows about what they’re doing back here. He’s probably their pimp. BBQ by day, pimp daddy by night.”
        Mabel was pulling out when something banged on a backdoor window. It startled them and they yelled out. “What the hell!”
        It was Rachel clamoring to get in the car. “Go,” Rachel whispered loudly, ducking out of sight. “I hope she didn’t see me take off after y’all.” 
        After putting a few quick miles between them and the restaurant, they pulled over.            Mabel and Emmy turned to Rachel. “Talk,” Mabel ordered. 

        “I knew Jerald. I knew your brother,” Rachel said, lowly. 
        “What do you mean, knew him? Like the one time he was here eating wings?” Mabel asked. 
        “Before…you know what happened?” Emmy followed up. 
        “Yes…long before that.” Rachel said, blushing. 
        It struck the girls that this woman knew, knew their brother. 
        “You mean biblically, knew?” Mabel asked, feeling a little squeamish. 
        “I don’t know if he was religious or not, but what I’m trying to say is, that Jerald…was a regular.” 
        “Oh, shit.”
        “Oh, shit.” 
        So, this was one of old Jerald’s stopping off spots, huh? Apparently, everyone here, the waitresses, Freddy, the “girls out back,” even some of the regulars at the restaurant, knew him by name. Some even called him “Jer” for short. 

        “Let me ask you this. Straight up, sweetheart. Did a bunch of hot wings really kill Jerald?” Mabel asked. “We don’t think a few wings could have done that. That’s why we came up all this way.” 
        Rachel paused. 
        “No. I guess he really did have a heart attack. But he could eat Freddy’s wings all day long. It wasn’t the wings that killed him.” 
        Emmy asked, “Well, what did, honey?”
        Rachel was tearing up. “I did.”
        “I killed your brother. I’m so sorry!” 
        “What do you mean, you killed Jerald?” 
        “Well, he could usually take it!” Rachel sobbed. 
        “Oh, shit.” 
        “You fucked Jerald to death?” 
        “He blacked out right at the end.”
        “Hope you got yours at least.”
        The girl blushed a deeper red. “Yeah. He was a very giving lover.” 
        “TMI,” Emmy yelled, “I shouldn’t have brought it up!” 
        On the day in question, Jerald had actually downed a “Fiery Fifteen” for about the tenth time during all his visits, so there wasn’t much fanfare. He’d outdone everyone on the Wall of Wing Wonders so many times, he’d been crowned “King Wing.” 
        “More like Cock of the Walk when he was around,” Rachel said. “He liked everyone to know he was a confident guy. He hardly let me leave his side. He’d pay for my company as much as anything else.” 
        “I could see Jerald doing all that,” Mabel offered. 
        “I loved seeing him pull in. He kept saying he’d take me with him, get me outta all this, but he’d up and be gone and I’d only end up hoping for next time maybe.” 
        “You poor thing,” Emmy said, patting her on the shoulder.  
        “That Jerald,” Mabel said, shaking her head.   

        Rachel and Jerald had retired “out back” for some celebrating. An hour later and Jerald was gone. 
        “I didn’t know what to do. I just ran and told Freddy. He sent the girls back, the waitresses. Freddy closed up. Me and the girls carried him back to the restaurant and we tried to figure out what to say.” 
Mabel was a little miffed at this. “Why not the truth?”
“And get us all in trouble. It’s hard enough staying in business as it is.”
        “And it was all believable, I guess? We fell for it.”
        “After I’d took a big bite of a hot wing and kissed him on the lips for the last time it was. He reeked of sauce then and I thought I was gonna be sick. I hate spicy food.”
        “How dedicated,” Mabel mumbled. 
        “But hell, the coroner’s a regular, too, so it wasn’t no big deal to fudge the paperwork to say it happened in the restaurant.” 
“Poor Jer,” Emmy said. 
“Yeah. Poor Jer. I kinda loved him,” Rachel muttered. 
        Mabel and Emmy exchanged a look. They were both on the same page with this one. 
        “Go get your stuff packed up. We’ll be back in an hour,” Mabel said. “One hour. No more, no less.” 
        Rachel didn’t argue. She knew she was done with this place, one way or the other, by talking to them about Jerald.    

Part II 

        An hour was too long. They knew that as soon as they drove down the road a piece, parked and had waited fifteen minutes. 
        “This is too much time, ain’t it?” Emmy said. “Yep, I think so,” Mabel agreed, “anyone can pack to get the hell outta dodge in twenty minutes or less.” “Why didn’t we think of that?” Emmy asked, “Let’s go back, she might be done.” 
        They went back and cruised by the restaurant and down the alley and on through to the dead end. No sign of Rachel. They came back out slowly. No sign. Up to the intersection along the restaurant and the main road. Nothing. They took a slow drive across the restaurant lot. 

        Emmy saw her first. Rachel was alone at a booth. The door sign was flipped to closed. Odd since it was lunchtime. No one was in the restaurant but the three waitresses. They were leaning against the bar. Freddy was standing amongst them talking. 
        “Oh, shit,” Emmy said. 
        “Oh, shit’s right,” Mabel said. 

        They parked. Everyone inside noticed them. Rachel didn’t look up. 
        “What do we do?” Mabel wondered. 
        “Think she’s caught?” Emmy asked. 
        After a minute, Mabel turned off the car, unlatched her seatbelt, and said, “Let’s get some lunch.” 

        Freddy watched them like a hawk, all the way from their car to the front door. 
        Bella met them, unlatched the locked, and barely opened the door. 
        Mabel said, “Y’all forgot to turn your sign! Thought we’d grab lunch again! You are open, right?” 
        Bella looked back to Freddy. He was still watching them. 
        “Y’all sure you wanna come in right now? Really sure?” 
        They nodded. Bella let them in. 
        No one said a word. No one made a move. 
        Mabel said, “Hey, y’all, we’re back.” 
        Freddy tongued his cheek. “Yep.” 
        They got closer to Rachel. They acted like they didn’t know her. She didn’t look up. 
        Something in the air caught in Emmy’s throat and made her choke a little, almost tearing up. 
        “Whew! That’s strong, whatever that is,” she said, as they took a seat at the same table they’d been at the day before. 
        “Must be Rachel’s lunch there,” Freddy mumbled. It was the most they’d heard him say. 
        They looked around, trying to guess who Rachel was, then noticed the only “customer” and the huge platter of darkly sauced wings sitting on the table in front of the girl. 
        “Lord, that’s not Freddy’s Fiery Fifteen, is it?” Emmy wondered out loud.
        Freddy and the waitresses laughed. “The very ones,” Freddy said, walking over and clicking the front doors locked. Freddy was a big, round man. Six-foot. Bald. His chef’s apron hardly covered him. The worn-out lettering said: Kiss the Cook (or else). He wore cut-off jean shorts and high-top sneakers. A stained black t-shirt. His beard was patchy. Hardly the look of a pimp. 
        He strutted back to them and Rachel. 
        “Seems our little Rachel here,” he continued, “decided to retire from a-whorin, ain’t that right, Rachel?” 
        Rachel didn’t look up. 
        “Ain’t that right!” he screamed. 
        Everyone jumped. Mabel and Emmy. The waitressed. Rachel gripped the table. Who knows how long she’d been there. 
        So Freddy was the pimp.
        “The problem is, they don’t clock out ‘til I say so,” he said. “Sexin’s just about 24 hours a day, as far as I’m concerned.”
        Tears streamed down Rachel’s cheeks. Probably from the fumes in her face as much as her being scared to death.  
        “Yep, ladies, she was apparently about to fly the coop for good. Thanks goodness Melissa back there caught her packin.” 
        Mabel spoke up. “What’s this got to do with us, Freddy.? We’re just here for some lunch. We don’t need to know your business.” 
        “You’re right. You don’t. But I need some witnesses, you see,” Freddy said. “I’m willing for little miss better than us to catch her ride with whoever was helping her out, on one very strict condition.” 
        “Well, we’re curious now,” Mabel said, “aren’t we Em?” 
        “Wings. She’s got to earn her ticket out of here by eating that there plate of wings.” 
        All the waitresses giggled their asses off at that. 
        “And if I do say so myself, those are some spicy masterpieces of my culinary prowess.”
        He looked at Rachel. 
        “Unfortunately, poor little Rachel there’s not a big fan of hot food. I got a feeling she’ll be staying with us.” 
        That was it. Rachel’d had enough. She pounded both fists on the table, rattling the silverware and coffee creamer, and shot Freddy the Pimp the God awfullest hateful look. 
        Freddy said, “Looks like somebody’s ready for lunch.” 

        Rachel grabbed a wing and shoved the whole thing in her mouth, gripped the end a little harder and pulled, de-sleeving the meat from the bone in one slick movement. She never lost eye contact with Freddy, even when her eyes completely filled with tears. She chewed three times and swallowed. She closed her eyes. She might have been praying. 
She picked up number two. Same thing. 
        Then came the hiccups. The runny nose. The labored breathing. This was only number three. 
        “Oh, my God,” Rachel coughed. 
        “No milk. No ice cream,” Freddy ordered. “Maybe some water. Tap.” 
        “Dick,” Mabel muttered.  
        Numbers four, five, and six. She could hardly breathe, let along speak, but she managed a gravely, painful version of her voice. “My lips are numb. My nose. It’s in my eyes.” She’s chew and swallow, chew and swallow. 
        “Don’t take all day, honey,” Freddy poked, “your ride might show up!” 
        Numbers seven and eight. Gone. Sweat was in her eyes. 
        “I don’t think she’ll do it,” Freddy jested. “I think she’s getting sick.” 
        Rachel cleaned wing number nine, licked her middle finger and waved it at him. His eyes got big as soup bowls. 
        “I think she’s got her second wind, Freddy Jo,” Bella said loud enough for everyone to hear. Rachel managed a grimaced smile. 
        Ten and eleven almost made her puke. Twelve helped keep them down. Thirteen brought the hiccups back.    
        Carrie started rooting her on. Freddy didn’t like that. 
        “Might remember which side your Texas toast’s buttered on, baby,” he snarled. 
        Bella joined in, keeping an eye on Freddy. “C’mon, honey. No use getting this far and giving in. Two more.” 
        Rachel belched. 
        “Whoa! I’m having flashbacks to ole Jerald!” 
        Mabel turned to the pimp. “What’d you say?” 
        “Well, I guess we’re getting to know each other a lot better by now, huh? I was just thinking how your brother used to slam down those wings like they weren’t nuthin. I guess the girls weren’t really up front with y’all yesterday, were ya, girls?” He looked to Carrie, Sandy, and Bella. “Course they were only doing what I told them to. Yeah, Jer used to swing around all the time, didn’t he, Rachel, baby?” 
        Rachel was hardly paying attention, pounding her fists on the booth table and gasping.  
        “He was the best of the best when then came to hot stuff…” 
        Number fourteen went down, but barely. Her neck and ears were flushed red, like the heat was trying to escape from everywhere. 
        “But it wasn’t that kind of hot stuff that done him in, was it?” 
        He was staring a hole through Mabel and Emmy. Rachel gave out a little growl. 
        Rachel was giving that last hot wing the evil eye as well. Holding it in front of her face, poised, but not ready. Determined. Faint. 
        Freddy strutted over, bent down right in her face. 
        “Last one. Mmmmm. Smells like you got maced. Looks like it, too. Ya know, why don’t you quit. That’n there might be the one that makes you bad sick. We’ve had plenty got the ER after just a few.”
        She bit it, taking her time. Freddy looked around, at all the girls. He huffed and laughed, went dead in the face. She stripped it clean with a lippy smack. 
        “Do what you want. But did you actually think you got to break our deal just because you ate a few shittin wings?” 
        He was proud of coming off so cleverly. He stared and smirked. Straightened up tall and turned to walk off.  

        Freddy kept a plastic spray bottle of oil and pure Capsaicin extract to mist his wings with a final Scoville punch. Anything not to have to give away too many t-shirts. Around the ninth wing, when everyone but Freddy had recognized Rachel’s determinedness, how sitting there chewing on those hell bites was the most any of them had ever stood up to that POS Freddy, was when Sandy had snuck into back and grabbed that bottle when no one was looking. She knew how strong its contents were. Even Freddy had told them, “If anyone gives you problems, hit them with a few shots of this. They’ll wish it was only police mace. I carry this in the woods in case I run up on a bear.”  

        As he turned, as Rachel swallowed down her last bite of the challenge, Sandy hit him in the face with his Capsaicin spray. Who knows how many Scoville units were in a single trigger pull of that bottle. Why bother counting after ten-million. 
        No one had ever seen anyone’s eyes swell shut in real time before. His did. As fast as he could holler and stumble around and grab out for wherever the assault was coming, his eyes were swollen shut like an MMA fighter had taken him out back for a few minutes of well deserved attention. 
        Mabel and Emmy stepped to Rachel. Rachel was dizzy, but got up and stood with them. The waitresses stepped back from Freddy’s flailing. He screamed curses and sounds they’d never heard in their lives. If he started calming down, Sandy hit him with another squirt. He’d yell and go on like he was dying. Bella grabbed the bottle. There was plenty in it. She hit him once. Again. Right in the nose and mouth. He was bent over. A foot-long string of saliva dripped off his lips. Now Carrie had the bottle. She got him in both ears. His skin was on fire. 
        The air in the restaurant was getting a little hard to breathe by now. The girls fought the urge to rub their eyes but resisted.  
        Emmy started to grab for it, but Mabel stopped her. 
        “We came to find out what happened to Jerald, honey. We found out. That’s enough for us. You go ahead, baby.” 
        It was Rachel’s turn. She gripped the bottle with both hands, like a pistol. Looked at Freddy, clawing at his skin and eyes. Spitting. She got him in the face, then the neck. He was more or less blind by now. Unless he accidentally got hold of one of them, he was helpless. 
        He’d taken off his apron in the back. Rachel adjusted the spray to jet and aimed for his crotch. It splattered. Soaked through his jean shorts. 
        It took a moment, but it saturated in enough to hit skin. He grabbed his crotch and scratched. Squeezed. Grimaced. Screamed, “I’m gonna kill every one of you.” Then he pissed his shorts. 
        Rachel’s aim was getting better. She got him dead in the mouth like a bullseye, back of the throat. He choked harder than ever. Cussed harder than ever. Even prayed, maybe for the first time in a long time. He was faint, on the verge of blacking out. His screams had turned to whimpers.   

        The girls quietly made their way to the front door. Bella had a key. She locked up, made sure the sign was turned to closed. 
        They left him there. Blind. Agonized. On the floor and alone in his restaurant. 

        Carrie, Sandy, and Bella were glad to be done with Freddy. Done with West Virginia’s hottest wings. Done with watching him pimp, feeling only a degree away from doing the same for him if things didn’t work out waitressing. 
        “Can’t say I’ll miss this place,” she said to the waitresses as she gave them hugs. 
        “Can’t say we’ll blame you,” Bella laughed. “You got room for three more?” 

        Rachel left with Mabel and Emmy. 
        As she got in the back seat she said, “Sorry I’m late.” 

Larry D. Thacker is a Kentuckian writer, artist, and educator hailing from Johnson City, Tennessee. His stories can be found in past issues of Still: The JournalPikeville Review, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Feed, Vandalia JournalGrotesque Quarterly, and Story and Grit. His books of fiction include the short story collection, Working it Off in Labor County, from West Virginia University Press, and the forthcoming short story collections, Every Day, Monsters, from Unsolicited Press, co-written with C.M. Chapman, and Labor Days, Labor Nights: More Stories, from Bottom Dog Press.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Junk in the Trunk, fiction by April Kelly

Larry’s a pain in the ass.  Always has been, but the first time I really registered how annoying he could be was late one afternoon in 1989, while I lay sprawled on the couch doing eighth-grade homework and listening to him badger our dad. 

“But you have to,” Larry whined.

“I’m a grown-up.  I don’t have to do anything.”

Dad said it good-naturedly, bouncing his eyebrows at his younger son and taking a pull from his beer, but Larry had been haranguing him for ten minutes and I could see my father just wanted to drink his Bud and watch the evening news.  Not surprisingly, that subtle vibe flew right over Larry’s head. 

“Everybody else’s father is doing it.”

“Really?  Everybody’s?”

Uh-oh.  Dad’s tone alerted me that he had pivoted away from indulgent suffering of my brother’s nagging, but Larry remained clueless.  I’d experienced the ominous change-up often enough to know my father was poised to dismantle the kid’s specious argument and end the discussion with a period that could instantly morph into an exclamation point if little bro persisted.  

At issue was some kind of bullshit career day Larry’s teacher had thought up, where fathers were invited—not, as my brother claimed, required—to come in and talk about what they did for a living. 

No way could my father tell a bunch of first-graders what he got paid to do.  I knew that because once, when I was just a little kid, I took a peek into the trunk of his car.

A confluence of misunderstandings on my part led to the gruesome discovery.  First, I had never been specifically told I shouldn’t press the shiny button that popped the lid of the trunk.  And, only the day before, my mother had warned me I would lose my allowance if I didn’t clean up “all that junk in your room.”

Junk?  That was good stuff.  Atari games, Stretch Armstrong, my Nerf ball and a couple video tapes about the astronaut program I hoped to join one day.

So, when I heard my father tell Mom he had some junk he needed to get rid of, my mind went to toys and comic books, not a plastic-wrapped corpse. 

While he went to get his wallet and keys, I raced out to the garage and pressed the release button on the big Caddy’s rear end.

Barely tall enough to see over the rim, coming eye to dead eye with a stranger, I froze.  Slowly, the trunk lid closed, my father’s hand firmly pressing down to engage the latch with a solid click. 

“Mikey, go watch your cartoons.”

He said it softly, but with a chilling look that sent me scurrying to my room.

The imagination of a six-year-old boy can conjure a monster under his bed and a boogeyman in his closet, but, as he matures, he realizes the childishness of those beliefs and casts them aside.  My belief that I had seen a body in the family car eventually faded from memory, as the dead guy was pink-slipped along with the monster and the boogeyman.

My father and I never spoke about the incident, so there was nothing to validate or sustain the picture of a man trussed-up inside a plastic sheet, blood within and duct tape without.  That is, until the day my brother’s increasingly nasal cajoling and my father’s implacable resistance dragged that corpse up out of the bog of forgotten—or suppressed—memory.  Recall vomited the dead guy’s smashed face and fixed stare into my brain, as Dad shut Larry down.

“How long is fourth period?” he asked. 


“An hour?  Let’s say an hour.  And how many kids are in your class?”

“I dunno.”

“Gotta be twenty, twenty-five.  We’ll round it down to twenty.  Now, how long did you say you wanted me to speak?”

Finally sensing the thinness of the ice on which he skated, Larry mumbled, “I didn’t say, Miss Randall did.  Ten minutes.”

“Okay, then, let’s figure it out.  Every dad is speaking, according to you, so ten minutes times twenty fathers is two hundred minutes.  Hey, I’m no math whiz, but that’s more content than a one-hour class can accommodate.”

Larry slunk away from a battle he wasn’t equipped to fight, but as Tom Brokaw’s theme music started, a new respect for my father grew in me, and it must have shown on my face.

“What’s with the shit-eating grin?”

I shrugged and backed off, same as Larry, but remained privately impressed that my old man was maybe some kind of mob enforcer, the romance and excitement of which had been jacked-up by the two Godfather movies.  The following Father’s Day, just to rattle his cage, I bought him a six-roll pack of duct tape.

“What an odd thing to give your dad,” my mother said when he unwrapped what he had expected to be cheap aftershave or his umpteenth polyester tie. 

I locked eyes with him as I answered her, feeling very much like a big man.  “Well, you know how you say he’s always fixing things.  I figured duct tape might come in handy.”

Making sure he knew I knew was a stupid thing to do, but typical of the teenager I was.  If it hadn’t been for the corpse in the trunk and my suspicion that my father was a badass hitman, I would have found some other excuse to issue a passive/aggressive challenge.  Isn’t that what young wolves have been doing to the alpha since the dawn of time?

Looking back, I regret indulging my biological imperative, that desire to unsettle him with the knowledge I had, but at the time it smelled like leverage I could use to my advantage in future negotiations for things like a set of wheels or more spending money. 

Dad vanished when I was fifteen, so I never got the opportunity to capitalize on our shared secret.  His most recent Cadillac turned up forty miles away, wrecked and burned-out, but his body was never found.  My mother, in an effort to protect her boys from the truth—which she must have known all along—finally whispered the words “witness protection” by way of explanation.  She swore Larry and me to silence, our own familial omertà.

All that was long ago.  Mom lives in Phoenix now, happily married to a retired optometrist, a decent, if nebishy, guy who never carved-up anything bigger than a Thanksgiving turkey. 

Larry’s still annoying, only now he gets paid for it because he’s a big deal tax attorney.  But it was me who put him through law school, so Lawrence, as he prefers to be called these days, is careful not to act too superior about my blue-collar status. 

With Mom departing to marry her internet squeeze and Larry hitting the law books, it fell on me to clear out our garage before the house went on the market back then, so I naturally acquired my father’s eclectic collection of saws, drills, hammers and industrial-sized rolls of plastic—the tools, presumably, with which he “fixed” things. 

Mom and Larry know my custom cabinetry business is thriving, but only I know it doesn’t thrive well enough to send that check to Arizona every month or pay off the rest of my kid brother’s student loans.

And me?  I’m doing okay.  I thought my wife Tina was the love of my life until Sue-Sue was born three years ago.  That little girl has me wrapped around her pinky like nobody’s business, but I guess it’s still normal for a man to favor his son.  Jimmy’s a hell-on-wheels five year old, curious about the world and everything in it.  He’s why I keep the trunk of my car locked at all times, even if it isn’t full of junk I need to dispose of for someone. 

Not long ago I built a miniature cabinet out of white birch, even bought tiny hinges and knobs from an online dollhouse supply place, so if Jimmy asks me to speak at his first-grade career day, I’ll proudly show them what a man can do with his own hands and the right set of tools.

In her previous iteration as a TV comedy writer, April Kelly contributed to America's dumbing-down on shows from Mork & Mindy to Webster, and Boy Meets World to Becker. She now atones by writing fiction. Her crime stories have appeared in Down & Out Magazine, Mysterical-E, DASH Literary Journal, Mystery Weekly and five times in Shotgun Honey. Her novel Murder: Take Three was a 2014 finalist for a Shamus Award.

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Key Witness, fiction, by Grant Tracey

Marion Dixon knew something wasn’t right when she saw the man in the black hassock, bending with the wind, his body a question mark against the dull blue and gold of the burnt heather. He looked about furtively, and then entered his dark sedan. She later identified him through a church directory, Father Pruitt.

Pruitt hadn’t seen Marion. She was shaded by a row of dirty black trees. The compound’s mess hall, made of white limestone, resembled a human femur. The windows were desolate, and the parking lot was a gray stretch of patches of grass peeking through cracked concrete. The cabins in the distance were wet, empty boxes.

Years ago, this now closed-down church, with its accompanying graveyard and campgrounds, was the place of worship of her grandparents and generations of early settlers who called Lakefield home. Once a year, Marion trekked from Toronto to clean the lichen from their headstones, to pay her respects, and to say a prayer for them. 

Condemned signs and “no trespassing” were posted on the property.

Behind abandoned mess hall doors, a mewling cry—

Marion rushed down thirteen steps to the boiler room. The floor was curved dirt, the air, damp and wet. The boiler had been off for days. Perforated dust fell gently from the ceiling like a beaded curtain.

Marion lit her Zippo, following the snarl of syntax. She found a soft spot, a trap door. The padlock was the size of a Stetson hat.

Next to a rake, shears, a gasoline can and garden gloves, leaned a sledgehammer. She shattered the lock with the fourth blow. 

Below drifted the heavy odor of blood, and decay. Bunk beds crowded limestone walls gone gray. Three see-through garment bags dripped down, stalactites of bodies on meat hooks. 

The bagged, decomposing corpses had loose skin dripping off skulls like Dali’s watches; haphazard angles of hair  had gone dry and brittle; bones stuck through forearms and legs. These were Lakefield’s missing girls, going back two, three years. Abby Moore would have made number four. She had been abducted last Victoria Day from a picnic at Isabel Morris Park. 

Marion held tightly to a sobbing Abby. It was as if they had known each other for years. 

Abby’s lips were cracked and a small cross was carved in her forehead. There were two puncture marks by her neck.

Detective John Sadler had read the followup reports. In the days after the rescue, Abby recalled diaphanous robes, being placed naked on an altar, a burning pentagram behind her. Latin words about sin were splashed about and Abby was forced to partake from a pyx full of wafers that had to have been soaked in LSD, because everything became a red haze, recollections distorted through a dreamscape of lambs’ blood, little crosses, and vampiric bites from a girl with helmeted hair and another with Cleopatra bangs. Pruitt, in the red heat of Abby’s altered consciousness, insisted on purifying her essence through an incantation of the damned, and then following the ceremony tossed her into the limestone bowels of Lakefield’s abandoned church. 

Because Abby had a history of schizophrenia, dating back to puberty, the medical authorities regarded her recent abduction narrative with much suspicion. The horror of the kidnapping had triggered fanciful visions, they diagnosed, a series of psychological breaks that resembled the ones she had at twelve before her first communion. Those too involved vampires, if you recall, they pointed out. And tiny bleeding crosses. Thus, the doctors for the defense took little stock in Abby’s version of “events.”

Sadler believed in Abby.  How else could you account for the damned bite marks on her neck? The cross scarred into her forehead? He’d seen the photographs. Self-inflicted wounds from a delusional mind, they said. Right. Moreover, the Arch Diocese vouched for Father Pruitt’s character, praising his long dedicated service to his parishioners, and his time spent with food drives and other community charities. When questioned about the kidnapping, Father Pruitt was having dinner with his Eminence.
But Marion’s testimony placed Father Pruitt in the vicinity at the time of Abby’s discovery. Marion identified his sedan by the color, the license plate, and the rust spots dotting the bottom of the passenger door. 

She further identified Pruitt by the emerald ring on his third finger that rested with a bent wrist grip, atop the black knuckled steering wheel as he drove away.

She was the Crown’s key witness.

And that made getting her safely to the criminal trial in Kingston the responsibility of Detective John Sadler.


Sadler had been fascinated by the report’s dark language and grotesqueries, but Marion refused to discuss anything to do with rescuing Abby from the limestone tombs. All Sadler knew about the key witness was that she was a nurse, full of a calm dignity, who during the bus ride busied herself knitting a sweater for a sister with a toddler. When the bus broke down, forty miles from Kingston, near the small town of Winsome, Sadler’s head spun with what ifs.

Forty-five minutes after snowmobiles had arrived, they were taken to a church basement, a much needed relief from wind chills that had dropped to -20 and air that was crisp like crinkled paper. The Daws motel had only five available rooms, and church elders placed seniors in parishioners homes, but the rest of the travelers were housed on the cold floor of Saint Matthew’s on Polis Avenue, a brick street fronting the town’s City Hall, Lion’s Club, a meat locker, and the local police office. Thunderball was playing at the Bijou.

Marion, going by the cover of Karen Carella, noticed the three angular windows and wondered if the elders locked the church’s doors at night. Like Sadler she was worried about potential hit men or crazed cultists on a mission.

The white cinder-block walls of the dark basement glowed charcoal gray. Children’s drawings of the ascension—no doubt a recent Sunday School session—hung crookedly here and there, and the local Armory had provided the blankets and pillows. The floor, damn it, was hard, and cold. Sadler lit a cigarette, and then shook out the pack of Luckies and lit one for her.

The actions of Pruitt’s cult were irrational, irredeemable. Sadler feared winding up a body hanging from some other cellophane bag in some other goddamn basement. Abby had seen their horrifying darkness: a black mass of Latinate words and little crosses dotted with lambs’ blood. He believed in Abby’s visions and that put him on edge.

Marion, however, was relatively calm for a key witness. Maybe it was her nurse's training that allowed her to exist in the distractions of others. During the long bus ride from Peterborough, Marion observed a teenager, seventeen or so, two seats down fighting back tears brought on by motion sickness. Marion opened her black bag and offered the girl Dramamine, and then rolled-up her cardigan, and suggested the girl use it as a pillow. 

“Rest your head against the window. Close your eyes. We’ll be there soon.”

The young woman was now bundled in scratchy blankets across the way, next to a much older man who should have been at the motel or in a home of one of the elders, but he had refused. “I don’t stand on no ceremony,” he said in a thick European accent. Sadler wasn’t sure that the line fit the occasion, but okay, the fella probably didn’t get all of the nuances of English idioms. Anyway, the detective had his eye on him, in case it was all an act. A transistor radio was in the fella’s right hand with a thin cord snaked up to his ear. Around his left wrist was a medical alert bracelet.

Sadler hated “what ifs” and this room was full of them.

There were five other men, besides the bus driver and himself, in the basement. The bus’s breakdown appeared legit. At least the bus driver was vetted by headquarters, and didn’t appear to be in on anything. He had never visited Lakefield. 


The five others: the old guy with a transistor; three fellas who looked like business types in their Sloan Wilson grays; and a twenty-something fella with a fresh-scrubbed face and a cuff of hair that perpetually hid his blue eyes. The latter had bulky shoulders and walked with a tight fitting swagger.

He appeared more interested in Marion than the age-appropriate girl with chestnut hair and upset stomach. Upon entering the basement, he offered Marion a Mars bar and lots of boastful talk about how he had a plan for his life, knew where he was headed: pharmacy school at Dalhousie. Right now he was visiting grandparents in Kingston over Christmas.

Kingston. The location of the criminal trial. Another what if.

The fella with the transistor was now snoring. It sounded like he was trying too hard.

Every now and then, faint footsteps padded across the floor above—

Sadler had called ahead from a phone in the church office. He was told to stay in the basement, blend in. Background checks hadn’t sent up any red flags. Apparently, no one from Lakefield had been spotted arriving in or near Kingston. They were pretty sure that his and Marion’s covers were intact, a young holiday couple, Mr. and Mrs. Carella.

But pretty sure wasn’t sure enough.

And the footsteps upstairs kept moving.


“You asleep?” she asked.

“No. You?”

The space heaters burned brightly.

“No,” she whispered. “I keep hearing them damn footsteps.”

Maybe the tension was getting to her. 

“Let’s check it out,” he said, a snub nose .38 on his left hip, shielded by the fan of his blazer. They climbed stairs.  The walk smelled of candlelight and coffee. When they reached the sanctuary, they saw a man in black with a turnaround collar. He was barely thirty, six or seven years younger than Pruitt, hands in pockets. “I’m sorry—was I keeping you awake?” He smiled and paced quickly.  He said he did this every Saturday, working on his sermon, and this one, had to be completely re-written. He held up some yellow pages with words scribbled on them. The emphasis, he said, is on welcoming the stranger: Matthew 25:31–40. On the pew near him was a heavy bible. Next to it, a pyx with a cream-colored handle that formed into a cross.

Sadler and Marion smiled briefly. “The Beatitudes,” she said.

Yes, the priest said. “My favorite.” He picked up the bible. Loving god with all your hearts and minds and your neighbor as yourself. 

Marion shot Sadler a look. That’s Luke not Matthew, she said.

“Well, yes, I’m borrowing from both sacred texts—” The priest smiled briefly, head down.

It was odd, but the father hadn’t introduced himself. Men of god usually announce 
themselves and ask your name.

“Hey, everything cool—?” It was the kid from Nova Scotia. He wiped at tired eyes. “I heard you all rustling about and then I looked up and you were gone—” He shook hands with the father. “I’m from Cole Harbour—” 

"I’m almost finished here," the priest said. "Sorry for the distraction—"

Tomorrow was Sunday.

Matthew. Luke. The Beatitudes. A costly mistake?

Yet another what if. A hitman in clerical robes?

“You want to try your sermon out on us—” Sadler’s hands hovered near his .38.

“I hope you’ll hear it tomorrow. Service is at 9.” The priest smiled invitingly.

Marion sat in a nearby pew and encouraged him.

Cole Harbour sat next to her, hair covering one of his eyes.

The sermon called for recognizing the brokenness in all of us and responding to the needs of others, like those on the bus that broke down outside of town. And before the priest could say anything else, the girl with chestnut hair was in the sanctuary, breathing quickly, her face pinched with worry, the old man next to her (who didn’t want to stand on ceremony), had gone to the bathroom and never came back. She went to check on him and found him collapsed on the floor, under the sink. Hurry. Hurry. “You’re a nurse, aren’t you?” She remembered seeing a blood pressure pump in Marion’s bag, the black bag with the Dramamine.

Marion paused, nodded. 

“I think he’s had a heart attack—” The girl’s mouth twisted with desperation—

 “My bag—”

The boy from Nova Scotia said he’d get it and ran ahead while the rest rushed to the bathroom, crowding one another at the entryway next to the foot of the stairs. He was under the sink, his head turned away. There were black scuff marks on the floor that matched the heels of the man’s shoes. He had been dragged here, Sadler realized, bending to look more closely and finding puncture marks on the man’s neck and the ragged markings of a cross cut into his forehead, a lake of blood over his eyes and shirt.

The girl with chestnut hair lifted the handle from the pyx she was carrying. Its underside was a sharp stiletto.

Sadler twisted, catching the blade in his side. He gasped, as she came up with a quick arcing thrust to his stomach, her lips parting, her teeth, fanged. He caught the third thrust with the side of his right hand, blood scissoring off the tops of two fingers, and with his left hand flipped the snub nose around quickly and fired twice. She crumpled to the damp tile, her metallic teeth breaking off when she landed.

Before the priest could fully grip the gun hidden in his heavy bible, Marion took off half his face.

Where was she carrying the piece? A calf holster?

The priest fell, a collapsed parachute of black.

On the wall behind him was scrawled in blood: Quem paenitet peccasse paene est innocens. 

The kid from Nova Scotia stood gawking, bag raised, hands over head, and then all of the red and white scrawl of blood broke into bits of glass and fine sand.


Sadler woke up in a hospital in Kingston. They airlifted him here hours ago. Marion was there with the police captain. Sadler grinned, his side and abdomen throbbing. He looked at Marion, the faint smile on her lips. “You’re not Marion Dixon—”

She’s a police woman, the Captain said.

The tops of two of Sadler’s fingers were gone. The reality of that had yet to land.

“I was a goddamn decoy?” He wished someone had told him the shot. 

You were decoys,” the Captain said. Lieutenant Reynolds had got Dixon to the courthouse this morning. They had taken a different route, by cab.

The fella with the transistor was dead. The girl punctured his jugular with some kind of titanium teeth apparatus, Marion-not-Marion explained. They lured us to the bathroom, a makeshift altar—“They were going to sacrifice us!” 

Sadler tried to recall the Latin words dripping with blood.

“‘Who repents from sin is almost innocent,’” Marion-not-Marion said. “Whatever that means.” She shrugged.

Sadler nodded and reached for the woman’s hand. “I don’t even know your name—”
She smiled a lopsided grin. “Elaine Stevens.” The grin disappeared from the corners of her mouth. 

“Hit men or followers of Pruitt or all of the above?” Sadler’s mouth was full of tin.

“Yes and no,” the Captain said, arms crossed. Intel says they’re out of Trenton. Their own cult. Connected but separate. “How many of these followers, different sects, are spread throughout Southern Ontario?” He sighed. “Who knows—”

Elaine squeezed Sadler’s good hand. 

The captain smiled and pushed back his gray fedora. “Enough talk, Sadler. Rest.”

In a matter of minutes, the real Marion Dixon would testify. Tonight, police woman 
Stevens was staying by her partner’s side

Her hand felt cool in his.

The Captain posted a guard outside the door.

She squeezed Sadler’s hand harder. 

Johnny smiled feebly, drifting to red and white words on a bathroom wall, and remnants of drawings on church cinder blocks, the ascension, and his mind bending toward the 
dark light, and blood of lambs on tiny crosses.

But not his body—please—don’t fall—


The grip on his hand tightened—and it felt damn good—

He felt it—the hand—

The warm light—

Felt it—and he wanted to stay—


—hand in hand—

Grant Tracey
is the author of the Hayden Fuller Mystery Series (Twelve Winters Press). A third book, Neon Kiss, is forthcoming. He teaches film and creative writing at the University of Northern Iowa, edits North American Review, and has published nearly fifty stories in literary magazines. In the past five years, he's turned to writing crime. His favorite authors are Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Jim Thompson. Born in Toronto, Grant's a die-hard Leafs fan.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Looking for Katie Showalter, fiction by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

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

“I’m looking for Mr. Andy Hayes?”

“You’ve got him.”

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

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

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

“Where was she then?”

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

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

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

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

“Have you reported this to the police?”

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

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

“I do my best.”

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

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

“Yes?” Voice even quieter now.

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

The line was silent for a few moments.

“I understand.”

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


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

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


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

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

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

“Do you know her? Katie Showalter?”

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

“When’s the last time you saw her?”

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

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

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

“Did she say anything about going someplace?”

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


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

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

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

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

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

“You’re sure?”

“I talk to a lot of people.”

“Someone saw you speaking with her during Pride.”

“I don’t remember, sorry.”

“Her mother’s worried about her.”

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

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

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

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

“You think she went with him?”

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

“Could one of you do me a favor?”

“Like what?” Merrill said.

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

“Open to his message how?”

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

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


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

“Did he say where?”

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

“Beckah!” Merrill said.

“I’m just saying.”

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

“There’s one way to find out.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

I handed her a flier and repeated my spiel. 

“Why don’t we speak in my office?”

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

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

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

“That’s right.”

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

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

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

“That’s a fair assessment.”

“The kind of girl we try to help.”

“Help how?”

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


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

“Like Katie?”

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

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

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

“Can’t or won’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

“For what?”

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

“Did they?”

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

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

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

I confessed I didn’t know.

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

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

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

“What did it say?”

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

“Who’s Rusty?”

“Our dog. Who died three years ago.”


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

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

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

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

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

“If the Bible has ninjas, sure.”


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

“And if things go south?”

“Say a prayer for me.”

“I always do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Who’s there?” 

“Katie? I need you to open up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

“Pastor Sharon says people won’t understand.”

“Try me. I promise just to listen.”

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

“The what?”

“It’s what they call it.”

“What who calls it?”

“Pastor Sharon and the disciples.”

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

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

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


“It’s part of the therapy.”

“Your therapy?”

She shook her head. “The men.”

“What men?”

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

“She told you that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t reply right away.


“They show our family.”


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

“She what?”

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

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

“I could ask you the same.”

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

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

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

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


She turned.

“Shut up,” Melton said.

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

A flicker of light in her eyes.

“I said, shut up.”

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

“Get him out of here.”

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

“A martial arts bootcamp, right?”

“Last chance, Mr. Hayes.”

“Your mom said you did pretty well there.”

“Move it,” Melton hissed. 

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

“Out!” Melton shouted.

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


Where two or more are gathered, I replied.

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

“In your dreams.”

“Prove otherwise, Mr. Hayes.”

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


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

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

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

“I’m trying to reach Andy Hayes?”

“You’ve got him.”

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

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

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

“I do my best.”

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

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