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

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Beyond Belief, fiction by Libby Cudmore


I wasn’t sure whether the knock I heard was in my head or at the door. It took me a second to figure out where I was, a small cabin with a fireplace and a kitchenette, a table and an armchair and not much else. I was sweating and shivering; when I sat up I coughed until my chest hurt. I dragged myself out of bed and wrapped myself in the fleece blanket folded in the chair. How long had I been here, and where was here? There were no cabins like this in Perrine.

            The knocking continued. I took a brief survey of the room. No bottles, no needles, no empty bags or tin foil. So I wasn’t hungover or cranked or going through withdrawal. There was an itch of a memory kicking around inside my skull. I ignored it while I answered the door.

            The woman knocking on the door was a little older than me, in a fleece vest and hiking boots, short blonde hair turning the last corner to full-on grey. “Wanted to check in on you,” she said. “I haven’t seen any movement in since you got here. You okay?”

            I turned away and coughed into my elbow. I was in critical need of a shower. “I guess not,” I said.

            “Do you need me to call a doctor?”

            I shook my head, too afraid of coughing again if I spoke. She peered past me into the cabin. “Look, I don’t mean to sound suspicious, but if you’re up here trying to shake some habit….”

            “Just a cold,” I insisted. “Worked myself to exhaustion, that’s all.”

            That softened her some. “I got some meds in the house, if you want,” she offered. “It’s just the drugstore brand, but it might help.”

            I coughed so hard I couldn’t answer. I coughed so hard I got woozy, leaning against the doorframe for support. I nodded with the last of my strength.

            “I’ll leave them on the porch,” she said. “You rest up and call if you need anything. The house number’s in the binder on the table.”

            I gave her a hoarse thank you and closed the door. The brief glimpse of the orange and red peaks that I got out my window told me I was either in the Catskills or the Adirondacks, possibly the Berkshires. Somewhere quiet and mountainous, somewhere a man could hide out and pay cash. I couldn’t even check to see if I had service; my phone was dead. I had a charger in my car, but that would require me to go outside. I wasn’t ready to face that yet.

            I found a can of coffee in the kitchenette and started the five-cup coffeemaker. I took a long hot shower and inhaled slow hits of steam, trying to clear my lungs. I hated putting back on the clothes I fell asleep in, but did so long enough to go to my car and get my go-bag. I felt better when I had on a clean shirt and fresh socks. I smelled better too.

            Over coffee I leafed through a binder of brochures for white water rafting and cave tours. I was in Fair Forrest, nearly three hours north of Perrine. Another hour or so and I would have been in Canada. I had only a vague memory of stopping for gas, of drinking coffee that curdled in my stomach. But I had driven here deliberately. I was on the run. Not from the cops – although I’m sure they wanted to talk to me too.

            I was on the run from myself.

            It was a simple tail, that’s all. A woman who wanted to know why her husband suddenly started staying late at work. We all knew the answer, but she needed that confirmation, needed the details to take to her lawyer. I got the pictures and took them back to her, Valerie took the check to the bank and closed out the file. No different than any other case we’d handled. Hell, it was almost easier. Sometimes you have to wait a couple of days for the khaki-wearing Romeos to make their amorous moves.

            But four days later the wife called me screaming, saying he’d left with his gun and she was worried he was going to do something drastic. And he did. Three hours later Valerie and I were standing with Captain Hollander and his pack of blues at a two-body crime scene in the same bedroom I had dirty pictures of. The husband shot the girlfriend and then he shot himself, blood and misery everywhere. And everyone at the scene knew that I was the strip on the back of the matchbook. The only thing that kept me from grabbing the bottle of vodka on the nightstand and swallowing it all right there was that there wasn’t enough left to get a teenager drunk for the first time.

            So I got in my car and I drove, drove to outrun my anger, drove to outrun my cravings, drove until dawn when I found the Pleasant Pines cabins, paid for three days with all the cash I had in my wallet and collapsed into bed. I came here because I wouldn’t know how to score when I wanted to more than anything, it was too early when I arrived to find an open liquor store or some barstool to park myself on and drink until I blacked out why I’d come here in the first place. That much, I realized, I had spared myself.

            My phone began to buzz back to life. I only had a few bars, not enough to make a call but enough to get my text messages and alerts for the four voicemails I had. Three were from Valerie. One was from Hollander. I’d listen to those later. I sent Valerie a text telling her I was safe and that I’d call her soon. If she never forgave me for the time she spent worrying whether I was dead somewhere, I’d accept that. But she didn’t need to worry one second more than she already had. I’d get another day or so of rest, shake this cold and head back to Perrine to face what I had fled. It was the only real option left on the table.


            Every town, no matter how small, has a diner. The Lucky was at the end of the main drag, a six-booth with a Formica counter and one teenage waitress doing homework on the last stool. There was only one other pair of diners in the place, an old man reading a local paper and a young woman on her phone. I sat in the last booth so as not to disturb them. They had the air of regulars.

            I ordered runny eggs and burnt toast and orange juice for my cold. My coffee came in a mug from a local auto repair shop. My waitress had a thick blonde braid and a nametag that read Jess and when she asked where I was from she didn’t seem to recognize the city. She asked where I was staying and I told her. “Sorry there’s not more to do here,” she said. “Once Labor Day comes, this town quiets right down.”

            “I’m in the mood for peace and quiet,” I replied.

            “Then you’ve come to the right place,” she said. “Stick around long enough, you’ll get sick of it.”

            She brought me my plate and refilled my coffee. I stuck my nose back in the paperback I’d grabbed off the cabin bookshelf to keep my mind from wandering while I ate. I heard the bell above the door ring as the old man and his companion left.

“Hey!” Jess cried after them, bolting out the door before it even had a chance to close behind them. “Hey, you forgot to pay!”

I could hear her yelling on the sidewalk. I got up and glanced out the window. Now the man’s companion was yelling too, gripping him like he would crumple to the ground if she didn’t. After a few more heated words and the glimpse of a police badge, she grabbed a wallet out of his pocket, took out a single bill, crumpled it in one fist and threw it in Jess’s face.

“You okay?” I asked when she came back inside.

“Not the first time it’s happened,” she said. “Guy’s the old police chief – he’s got dementia, I think he remembers when cops used to eat for free here. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if his niece wasn’t such a raging bitch. She’s a cop too. If you can call part-time traffic enforcement a cop. Daphne walks around here like a four-star general.”

            So some things weren’t just city problems. “Did they cover their bill, at least?” I said.

            “Barely,” she said. “Nice tip. A whole buck. More than she usually gives me.”

            She went back to her history textbook. I finished my breakfast and left a $20 on a $9 check. It was the least I could do.


            I wasn’t ready to go back to the cabin, so I took a stroll through the downtown. At least that’s what I told myself I was doing. I wondered if I would see Guy and Daphne harassing other shop owners. I wondered if I was just avoiding calling Valerie.

I stopped at a tiny department store and bought a shirt and a pair of pajama pants and some extra socks. My go-bag had one change of clothes, but the nights were colder than I expected. I got another cup of coffee at the shop on the corner and drank it in the park, watching a handful of other late-season tourists in fleece vests and hiking boots stroll by. When I was done with my coffee I went back to my car and explored the other streets, found the grocery store and the laundromat and a bar called Taylor’s that I drove by like I was stalking an ex. I could convince myself of a lot of things, but being able to handle a drink was not one of them. I kept driving.

I pulled over in the parking lot of the school. My phone was charged and I had decent service. Valerie answered on the second ring. “Jesus Christ, Martin, where the hell have you been?” she spat. “I’ve been freaking out here.”

“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” I said. Even pissed at me, it was good to hear her voice. She’d only been my assistant for three months, but I’d come to rely on her in a way I hadn’t relied on anyone since the French Letters broke up. I was surprised she was actually worried, that she gave a damn whether or not I came home and in what shape. I’d been on my own for so long that wasn’t used to that.

“Where are you?”

“Fair Forrest,” I said. “Somewhere in the Adirondacks.”

“Tell me next time you’re going to take a vacation,” she said. “I was about to file a missing persons report. You seemed pretty rattled when you left. You okay?”

            “I’m better than I was,” I said. “How are things there?”

            “Mr. LaGuarde is still dead,” she said. “But the papers seem to have moved on. Hollander wants to interview you, but he said no rush. No one to take to trial, after all.”

            It was of little comfort. There was always the chance the widow could sue me, but seeing as how she’s the one who hired me, it’d be little more than an inconvenience to everyone involved. “Do me a favor and set up the interview,” I said. “If Friday works for him. And get Vinny on the books too; I don’t want to talk to anyone without my lawyer.”

            “Can do,” she said. “Does this mean you’re headed back?”

            “Not yet,” I said. “But soon.”


            When I got back to my cabin, my bed had been made and my dishes had been washed and there was a small bag on the table; cold tablets and tissues and tea and a note that said there was soup in the fridge, two bags of frozen chicken noodle and a pot set up on the hot plate when I was ready. I made the tea and took my book out to the porch to sit in the sunshine. For the first time in three days, I felt all right.

            Susan came by with a cord of firewood. I thanked her for the gift bag. “I hope I didn’t offend you this morning,” she said. “Every so often some city kid comes up here to try and dry out and it never goes well. Fresh air is great and all, but it can’t cure the DTs. I know from experience.”

            “So do I.”

            She smiled at me. I nodded towards the other chair and she set down the firewood and sat. “22 years,” she said. “You?”

            “Just crossed 18.”

            “I go to a meeting in town,” she said. “If you feel like you want to join me.”

            “I might,” I said. I’m never quite as touched as when someone invites me to their meeting. It’s a reminder that people do care, that they are kind if given a chance. In my line of work, it’s easy to forget that. But my temptation was starting to wane, I had confidence again in my sobriety. Hearing Valerie’s voice helped more than she would ever know.

            “So what do you do?” she asked.

            “I’m a private investigator,” I replied.

            She lowered her voice. “Are you on a case right now?” she asked. “Something going on with one of the other guests?”

            I laughed. Even if I was working someone over, it would be against the PI’s code to tell her. “No,” I replied. “Just needed a place to relax for a few days. It’s a stressful job.”

            “I’ll bet,” she said. She stood up and pointed to the white house up the driveway. “If you need anything, even just someone to talk to, I’m up there,” she said. “Day or night, you just ring the bell. I’ll answer no matter what.”

            “Do you always take such good care of your guests?”

            She smiled and picked up the wood. “Sometimes,” she said. “Enjoy the rest of your stay.”


            I woke up to someone banging on a door somewhere in the distance. It took me another minute to realize where I was, that it wasn’t my door. I got up and peered out the window to see a shadowy figure on the porch of the empty cabin next to mine. I put on my shoes and my jacket and went outside to see what was happening.

            In the dim light from the road I could see Guy, feeble and frail, pounding on the door with all the strength he had left. If he was trying to yell, his voice was little more than a crude whisper, a barely-audible rasp. “Guy,” I said, approaching cautiously. “Is everything all right?”

            “Claire’s in there,” he grumbled. “I need to see Claire.”

            “There’s no one in there,” I said. The only other people I’d seen were a young couple with a dog and an SUV, another few cabins down the line.

            He ignored me. I wondered who I should call, Susan or the cops or just let him dotter away when lucidity kicked in. I was on vacation. I didn’t need this. I was just about to turn back when I saw Susan advancing in her robe and a pair of hastily-tied hiking boots. “Not again, Guy,” she said, reaching for his arm. “Claire’s not here tonight. C’mon, let me call Daphne, she’s probably worried about you.”

            He muttered something both of us pretended not to hear. “I can stay with him,” I offered. “If you want to go call someone.”

            Before she could take me up on it, a second car roared up the driveway, lighting us up like fugitives. Daphne stormed towards us. “I was just about to call you,” Susan said. “You need to hide his keys better.”

            Daphne seized him roughly. “Again with this?” she snapped. “There’s no Claire here.”

            “Easy,” I cautioned. “Don’t want to make things worse with a fall.”

            “I don’t need advice from another one of Susan’s joyriders,” she sneered. “So mind your own goddamn business.”

            “Get out,” Susan barked. “Both of you. Now. Next time I see him here, I’m calling the cops. The real ones.”

            Denise yanked her uncle back towards the car. There was a brown Buick parked crookedly in the lot. “Get that junker off my property by daybreak,” she continued. “Or you’ll find it in the tow yard.”

            Daphne cursed us both out until she got in her car, scattering gravel as she sped off into the night. “I’m sorry about that,” Susan said. “He’s old, he has dementia.”

            “So I’ve heard,” I said. “They pulled a similar scene at the Lucky earlier.”

            “He really needs to be in a home,” she said. “Or have a full-time nurse. But Daphne won’t allow it. Probably because she’s been dipping into Uncle Pennybags’ account.”

            She started to walk away. Before I could stop myself, I heard the words slip out of my mouth. “Who’s Claire?” I asked.

            She turned back. “No one,” she said. “No one of any importance.”


            Cold-wise, I felt better the next morning. I took half a dose of cold medicine and called Valerie, gave her the name of the motel, of Claire, of Guy and Daphne and Susan. Maybe she’d find nothing at all. Maybe she’d find an old girlfriend. But more curious than an old love affair, was that Daphne had called me a “joyrider.” There had to be a reason for that.

            Susan came by with firewood around 11. “Sorry about last night,” she said.

            “Does that happen often?” I asked. “Him showing up like that?”

            “First time it’s happened here,” she said. “But like you saw at the diner, he’ll show up places and make a scene. Only been in the last six months or so. Should have guessed he’d find his way here eventually.”

            “What did she mean when she called me a joyrider?”

            She hesitated. “I’m a PI,” I reminded her. “I can ask around, but I’d like to hear it from you.”

            She set down the wood carrier. I offered her a seat on the porch, but she didn’t take it. “I thought I was doing the right thing,” she started. “We had really bad drug problems up here, same as everywhere. But they closed all the clinics, hospitals can’t take them to dry out and the closest in-patient is three hours from here. So I offered my place in the off-season for people who might not have anyplace else to go. A lot of these guys have burned through their family, and the only friends they have are still using.”

            I was lucky. My sister Sandy took me in after I completed rehab. Hell, I had rehab to complete; a bed, a gym, counselors, green space to stroll and food to eat. I couldn’t have done it otherwise. My cravings, even 18 years later, told me that much.

            “A lot of people got clean,” she said. “I’d take them to meetings, talk with them, all the stuff my sponsor did for me. Some of them helped around the camp, splitting firewood, raking leaves, simple stuff. Some of them still send me Christmas cards. But I had a rule – you only got one chance. You screwed up, you got kicked out. There were too many people who needed a place to stay and I didn’t have time to screw around. But I got a reputation. Someone started saying I was feeding them junk so I could keep cashing county checks. The cops would roll by and give me a fake name, just to let us all know they were watching.”

            Sounds like cops all right. I wondered if one of them was Denise.

            She continued. “I got this one kid, Kyle. Sweet kid, very nervous, really struggling. I’d make him dinner, bring him books, try and talk with him. But one night, while I was at my meeting…”

            I knew where this story was going. It was a story that had been told a thousand times, in every city and town across the country, always with the same sad ending. “He broke into the other cabins,” she said. “He stole their tapers. He went into town and shoplifted some allergy meds and a six-pack. I don’t know if he had a seizure or an OD or if he choked on his own vomit, but he was dead the next morning. I told them to stop sending me people after that. His parents tried to sue me, but the judge threw it out. There were less than 10 of us at his funeral. His parents weren’t among us.”

            I had one last question. “What cabin was he staying in?”

            She looked at me like she’d just realized her mistake too late. “This one,” she said.


            I didn’t need Susan to move me. I didn’t believe in ghosts, but something had me unsettled enough to want to get out for awhile. I went into town for lunch. “Saw Guy again last night,” I told Jess. “Banging on the door of Cabin 8 at the Peaceful Pines.”

            She snorted. “Sounds about right,” she said. “My grandma said that place was a whorehouse back in the day.”

            A waitress, like a bartender, is an invaluable source of information. They’ll never give a name or the full story, but they hear and retain stories like a tape recorder. Ask the right questions and they’ll playback anything you want to know – within reason. They had codes like priests when it came to the identifying details. She clapped her hand over her mouth as soon as the words were out. “I’ve heard worse,” I assured her. “Tell me more.”

            She was blushing. “She said the girls would come into town once a week or so to shop,” she continued. “And they’d come to her beauty parlor to get their hair set, all at the same time. She would block off Wednesday from two to close just to do those girls’ hair. She said they tipped better than any of the ladies in church.”

            “Susan was telling me it was a crash pad for people in outpatient rehab,” I said “But you were probably too young to remember that.”

            “I heard stories,” she said.

            “Any of them about a girl named Claire?”

            She shook her head. But before she could say anything, my phone rang with Valerie’s number. I muttered an excuse me and took the call outside. “What did you find?” I asked.

            “There was a woman named Claire Londner who was found strangled in a roadside cabin in 1977,” she said. “They never arrested anyone in her death.”

            If what Jess had told me was true about the locals, I doubted they looked too hard for her killer. Probably considered it an occupational hazard. “Who was the cop assigned to the case?”

            I could hear her flipping pages. I imagined her at her desk in my office, the scent of coffee and ink. “The paper quotes a Detective Guy McDuff,” she said. “What’s this about?”

            “Not sure yet,” I said. “But I’ll let you know when I find out.”


            The library was the only place I could get a reliable internet connection. I found the same scans of old newspapers that Valerie must have; Claire Londner, 28, was found strangled in her cabin on Oct. 28, 1977. Back then the cabins were called The Alpine, their logo showed a cheerful girl in a short dirndl and high-heeled clogs. How very Gil Elvgren.

            “Excuse me,” I asked the librarian. “Is there a local historian? A museum, maybe?”

            She brightened. “You want to talk to Dana Hale,” she said. “He knows everything.”


            The librarian gave me Hale’s number and he agreed to meet me at the museum on the edge of town. I told him I was working on a book about the area. He believed me.

            Hale was short and bald like a high school science teacher nearing retirement. “I’m looking for anything you had on the girl who got murdered at the Alpine in the 70s,” I said. “Claire Londner.”

            “Pretty grim subject for a book,” he grumbled. “What brought you to that?”

            “Research,” I said. “Do you have anything from that? A phone book, a property listing?” I didn’t know yet what I was looking for, but someone in this town had to know something that would connect me to why the former police chief was looking for a murdered girl by her first name in the middle of the night.

            “It’s a chapter this town would rather forget,” he said. “And most of them don’t want to admit that the johns spent a lot of money in this town.”

            “Until one of them murdered one of the girls,” I said. “What’s the prevailing theory in her death?”

            He didn’t say anything. He disappeared into the back room and was gone so long I thought he might have escaped out the back. When he did return he had a grey box in his hands. “I came across these while cataloging some property for an exhibit we had a few years back,” he said. “But I never knew who to tell, so I didn’t say anything. I think you’ll understand why.”

            Inside was a priest’s collar, a small gold cross with a broken chain, some photos and a leather-bound Bible. I picked up the Bible and a flattened matchbook fell out onto the table.

            The Alpine Motel.


            The Bible belonged to Father Curtis Franklin, a priest at St. Mary’s from 1965 until the early 80s. “This guy was practically the Pope,” Valerie said. “When he retired in 1991, the newspaper dedicated their entire front section to him. He oversaw the opening of the food pantry, personally made the corned beef for the annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner, all that sort of small-town shit.”

            I had managed to find Chinese takeout and a spot in my cabin that got halfway decent cell phone reception. I put Valerie on speaker and kicked my feet up on the table, like we would have if we were chewing over a case in the office. I just wished I had enough bandwidth to put her on video. I was starting to miss seeing her face. I imagined there was a lot of eye-rolling I was missing out on. “Any police record?” I asked.

            She snorted. “Of course not,” she said. “And none of the records of getting bounced around the way pervs do. He was here for 20 years and beloved in every single one of those.”

            “All the better reason to cover up a crime,” I muttered.

            “You think he murdered Claire?” she said. “My money was on the police chief.”

            “I think Guy helped bury it,” I said. “And I think in his confusion, he’s going back to the scene of the crime. The director of the history center gave me the name of the madam’s daughter, Jeannine Dorne, thought she might have something.”

            “What are you going to do if you solve it?” she asked. “Franklin’s been dead for 20 years and no judge will find McDuff fit for trial.”

            I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Hell, I don’t even know how I got involved except for my own goddamn curiosity. All that got me last time was two dead bodies with my photos at the crime scene.

            I let Valerie go with a promise to be home soon and finished my takeout. I wished I had some music; I was 200 miles away from my piano and my signal wasn’t strong enough to stream anything. For the first time in three days, my cabin felt very lonely. I tried whistling The Mighty Lemon Drops, “Inside Out.” The only problem was that I wasn’t very good at whistling.


            Jeannie lived on the road that wound along the lake, on property that would sell for triple what she likely paid for it when the time came to move. “I thought about giving this to the police years ago,” she said, handing me a large brown ledger. “But I knew they’d just destroy it. Half their names are probably in it, but I’d never know. They’re all coded and Mama never told me what the patron code was. She had it memorized.”

            “No surprise there,” I said. “Was there ever anyone your mom was really scared of? Worried about?”

            “Not locally,” she said. “Occasionally she’d get some bad vibes from an out-of-town client, but she would have never put him in with Claire. She saved those guys for Ramona, she knew kung-fu or some shit. No one messed with Ramona. Claire was more the girl-next-door type, played that pretty and shy routine, like she was a virgin 10 times a night.”

            “You remember her?”

            “Sure I do,” she said. “She used to give me a little spritz of her perfume if I came by. She said it was from France, she kept it in one of those fancy atomizers with the feather and the pump. Years later I found out it came from Sears, but still, it was sweet of her to do.”

            She got out a photo album. “Mama had a code for each girl too,” she said. “Claire was #24,” she said.


            “V for virgin,” she said. “24th letter of the alphabet. #4 would be dominatrix, that sort of thing.”

When The French Letters were in Amsterdam on tour, my guitar player Ron and our bass player Vic tried to get me to go with them to a brothel, but I wasn’t interested. Instead I smoked a couple Gladstone cigarettes in the bathtub and ran up an international phone bill that infuriated our management. I never wanted any woman but Cecelia, back home in LA. Her voice was all the pleasure I needed right then.

            Jeannie pulled Claire’s photo out and passed it to me. She was pretty, a redhead in a lace-trimmed nightgown, with those too-trusting eyes. She wore a small gold cross around her neck. I wondered if it was for real or a prop for her good-girl routine.

            Or her murder weapon.


            My family was Methodist, but growing up, my best friend Rudy was Catholic, so on weekends I spent over at his house, I’d go to mass with his family. I liked the ritual of it even if I had to stay seated while they took communion. Later on, I liked that I got to sit next to his sister Lucy, who wore Love’s Baby Soft and was tall enough that her skirts were a little shorter than they had been a year ago. At 13, I would have nailed myself to the cross just to touch her hand. Years later, when I was back in Duluth for my mom’s funeral, she showed up with her two sons, as beautiful as ever, kissed my cheek and told me how good I looked, that Rudy had moved to North Carolina to become a basketball coach and he was sorry he couldn’t get away. She smelled like cucumber melon when she hugged me and she had a much better husband than an ex-junkie rock star could have ever hoped to be.

            But I wasn’t here to confess the lustful heart I’d had for Lucy Archer 40 years ago. I wasn’t even here for prayerful reflection. I was here because Guy’s car was in the parking lot, because he was alone in the third pew, clutching a rosary he wasn’t counting. I sat behind him and leaned forward so I was practically whispering in his ear. “I heard nice things about Claire,” I said.

            He looked back at me. He smiled. “She used to sit right here,” he said, pointing to the pew across from him. “She never missed a Sunday mass.”

            “I bet Father Franklin liked that,” I said. “Good looking girl in the pews.”

            “He saw her soul,” he said. “Her devotion to the Lord. He wanted to save her.”

            “None of us are without sin,” I said. “Not even a priest.”

            He didn’t respond, so I kept talking. “He killed her,” I said. “And you helped cover it up. You had to. Because he knew all your secrets. He knew who drank too much, who hit their wife, who sent their daughter to stay with relatives when she started to show. All the little sins you unburdened yourself with, week after week. If he was revealed, you all would be. And none of you could take that chance.”

            I expected him to get up and leave, to respond with fight, to speak in tongues, to drop dead of a heart attack. I expected him to do anything but smile and sigh. “Yes,” he said. “He went to her. More than once. He called me from her phone, said she needed help. He was gone when we arrived. All of us did. They never caught her killer. But we all knew.”

            “How come the Madam never said anything?”

            “Because we threatened her,” he said. “She saw what happened to Claire. She closed up shop pretty quickly after that.”

            Maybe it wasn’t fair, confronting a confused old man with his crimes. Guy might be gone in another six months. Father Franklin was dead. But so was Claire. Maybe that only meant something to Jeannie, the only woman who remembered her, who lit a candle for her wandering spirit. I knew a few things about the ghosts that linger, about leaving lights on so someone can find their way home to rest. I’d light a candle for Cecelia on the way out, the same way Rudy had taught me. Hell, I’d light one for Valerie and Susan too, a prayer in the darkness for the people who might need it.

            Guy seemed lighter, somehow. Confession cleared your head, saying your sins out loud held you accountable. I never understood what that meant until I got to rehab, until I had to spell out my own weaknesses week after week, until they disappeared like vapor. I remembered that weight being lifted, the relief I felt when it was all given up to some higher power.

            I squeezed his shoulder as I stood up. He lifted his eyes to meet mine. “Thank you,” he said. “The peace of God be with you.”

            “And also,” I said. “With you.”


            I let Hale make the call to the village police. They interviewed me at the museum; we showed them the cross and the matchbook, all circumstantial. They interviewed Jeannie too, and picked up Guy for questioning the next day. Daphne screamed at the cops who came to get her uncle. I watched from my car across the street as she followed them out. I wondered if she believed his innocence, if she kept up the family business of secrets or if she was pissed because her meal ticket was gone. There might be elder abuse charges waiting for her, or she could empty his accounts and take off, have the pension checks forwarded to some other small town with a police force she could bully her way into. Guy would never see the inside of a court room other than the day of his arraignment, but none of it was my problem anymore. None of it was my problem to begin with

            I was drinking coffee on my front porch when a cab pulled up and Valerie got out. She didn’t have any luggage. “I thought you could use some company on the ride back,” she said as she approached.

“Maybe I’ve decided to stay,” I joked. “Set up shop here. I’ve already solved one case.”

            “All your music is back in Perrine,” she said. “Your French press and your piano and all your suits.”

            She had me there. “Let me finish my coffee,” I said. “My bag is all packed anyways.”

            We sat on the porch without saying a word. There’d be plenty to talk about on the ride home. When we’d finished I rinsed out the cups and the coffee pot, put my bag in the car and went up to the white house to pay the remainder of my bill. Susan gave me a hug and said thanks and that everyone was talking about what happened. That was my cue to ride off into the sunset.

LIBBY CUDMORE is the author of THE BIG REWIND (William Morrow 2016), and previous Martin Wade stories have appeared in ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE and the Anthony Award nominated anthology LAWYERS, GUNS & MONEY: CRIME FICTION INSPIRED BY THE MUSIC OF WARREN ZEVON (co-edited with Art Taylor). Her short stories have been published in MONKEYBICYCLE, SMOKELONG QUARTERLY, HAD, THE NORMAL SCHOOL, THE COACHELLA REVIEW, BLEED ERROR and others, and she is the co-host of the OST PARTY, MISBEHAVIN' and SHATTERED SHIELD podcasts. This is her second contribution to TOUGH; her story "The Covenant" was published in October 2019.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Slow Movin' Outlaw, fiction by Joseph Walker


My cousin Dennis called me a few days after serving seven months in county for trying to take a broken bottle to the face of a guy in a bar who objected to Dennis leering at his wife. Dennis being Dennis, he targeted a former college linebacker who had nine inches and probably eighty pounds advantage on him. The guy took the bottle away and amused himself by tenderizing Dennis’s ribs until the cops showed. They would have let most people sleep it off in the drunk tank, but they were just as sick of Dennis as everybody else, so they dropped a charge on him.

        “Got something big planned tonight,” he told me when he called. “Sure score. You wanna drive, get a piece of it?”

        I knew I should say no. Dennis and I raised hell together in high school and for a few years after. We’d drive a few hours to the suburbs of Atlanta or Asheville to jack a car, maybe break into an empty house. After a while we felt bad enough to knock over some gas stations.

        I didn’t need that kind of juvenile shit anymore. I had a steady gig for a man in Charlotte. Every couple weeks, I drove packages from his stash house to a place in Boston, never going over the speed limit, taking new routes every time, and staying away from big cities. Between runs I played video games and smoked pot. I was satisfied. Satisfied is one thing Dennis has never been.

        Thing about Dennis is, he’s an asshole, but I was raised to not shun kin for being blind, or a little slow. I figure Dennis can’t help being an asshole any more than a blind guy can help being blind, so I try to put up with him.

        I told him I’d pick him up at nine.

        “Well, this is a piece of shit,” he said when he climbed into my car that night. “You oughta have you one of those big new F150s.”

        I drove a black Honda CR-V because it looked like half the other cars on the road and cops never gave it a second look, but I’ve given up explaining stuff like that to Dennis. He’d just tell me all the reasons I’m wrong.

        “Aunt Tilly happy you’re home?” I asked as I pulled away.

        Dennis snorted and flicked the ash from his Camel onto my floorboard. “When she notices.” Other than a few semi-sharp hours in the morning, Aunt Tilly spent most of her time these days looking at the world through an Oxy haze.

        “So let me in on this big score,” I said.

        “Step at a time, Lightning.” People called me that sometimes because I ran track. Not that I set any records. Mostly, I looked at the backs of the kids who got scholarships. “First we go see Bray.”

        “Bray Fusco?”

        “He’s holding something for me.” Dennis tossed his butt out the window and immediately lit another. “Meeting us behind that old video store on Adams.”

        “We can’t just go to his place?”

        “Little fucker still lives with his folks, if you can believe it.”

        I could have pointed out where I just picked him up, but I didn’t want to hear how the two situations were completely different. Instead, I listened to him spinning my radio knob and complaining that my shitty soccer-mom car didn’t even have satellite.

        Bray Fusco waited for us on a strip of broken asphalt between the abandoned video rental place and a tangle of brush marking the eastern edge of town. Bray was always the smallest kid in school, and he hadn’t grown any in the years since. He was barely five feet tall and couldn’t have weighed more than a buck twenty. When Dennis slapped him on the back, he staggered forward half a step, grimacing.

        “You ain’t been to see me since I was sprung, Bray,” Dennis said. “Might could hurt a guy’s feelings.”

        Bray put his back to the wall and crossed his arms, scowling. “What the fuck would I come see you for? We fuckin’ dating?”

        “Best watch your mouth now.” Dennis grinned, taking a long drag on his latest cigarette. “Cousin Lightning has delicate ears.”

        “Shut up, Dennis,” I said. “Hey, Bray.”

        Bray jerked his head at me but didn’t say anything.

        Dennis clapped his hands. “Time’s ticking, Bray. Where’s my bag?”

        “I wouldn’t stand here just holding it,” Bray said. He walked off into the brush, cussing as he pushed through a screen of kudzu. A moment later he was back, carrying a little black backpack. He pushed it into Dennis’s chest.

        “There we go.” Dennis tossed his smoke, and it bounced off the ground in a shower of sparks. He unzipped the bag and pulled out two guns, a snub-nosed revolver and a Glock. He slung the bag over his shoulder and held out a gun in each hand, pointing them at Bray. “Stick ‘em up.”

        Bray didn’t flinch. “Very funny, dick. We’re even now.”

        “Sure,” Dennis said. “Till I say we ain’t.”

        He handed me the revolver. It was loaded, but the finish was mottled and tarnished in places. The sight was filed off the barrel. “How old is this damned thing?”

        Dennis slid the clip out of the Glock and then smacked it back in. “Feel free to use one of your own,” he said.

        “Don’t have one with me.” Never carry was one of the rules the man in Charlotte made his drivers follow.

        “Then I guess you’re stuck.” Dennis didn’t even pretend to care. “Relax. It’ll do. I’ll be taking the lead anyway.”

        “The lead on what? What the hell are we doing?”

        “He doesn’t know?” Bray asked.

        “Haven’t gotten to it,” Dennis said. I didn’t like the way his eyes were shining. “Tell him what you told me this morning.”

        Bray sighed. “You know my sister is a nurse’s aide,” he said to me.

        The only thing I knew about Bray’s sister was that she did it with me once in a bathroom at a party, but this didn’t seem like the time to mention it. “Okay.”

        “She told me Colm Jaxon was in the hospital for a hip replacement,” he said. “Released just this morning.”

        “Colm Jaxon,” I said. I looked at my cousin. “You’re fucking with me.”

        “Old son of a bitch can barely move,” Dennis said. “Probably flying high on paid meds. We’re going out there to take him for everything he has.”

        I was five years old the first time I saw Colm Jaxon. He was in the parking lot of a hardware store, beating the ever-loving hell out of a fat man in a red t-shirt. Jaxon was in black, from his Stetson to his leather boots. His beard went halfway down his chest, and tangles of stringy black hair fell from under the hat. He wasn’t a huge man, but he looked like he’d been carved from hard, old, gnarled wood, and the fist he kept driving methodically into the fat man’s face was at the end of an arm of lean, concentrated muscle.

        Blood poured from the fat man’s nose like it was a faucet. I shrank behind my father and peered around his legs to watch. When the fat man stopped moving, Jaxon dropped him to the pavement. He rolled his shoulders and wiped his brow, leaving a faint streak of blood across his tanned skin. He did a slow circle to look at the ten or so people watching from the fringes of the lot, making eye contact with all of them. When he looked at me, his eyes seemed entirely black. He mounted an enormous Harley and roared away.

        My father said the fat man owed Mr. Jaxon money, and that was why you had to be very careful about who you took money from. I asked if Mr. Jaxon wouldn’t be in trouble with the police, like my father was sometimes himself. He said the police wouldn’t care about a little fight just between the two men. The truth was they knew no jury within two hundred miles would have the nerve to convict Colm Jaxon of jaywalking.

        I had my first nightmare about Jaxon that night. I had them almost every night for years.

        We didn’t see him in town much, but his legend went around the schoolyard, passed down from the older kids. He was a loan shark, a car thief, a pimp. His grandfather ran moonshine, and his father grew pot, and Colm did everything. He was supposed to have fields of poppies hidden out in the mountains, harvested by Mexicans. He was supposed to be getting a taste of every dope shipment that passed within a hundred miles. He was supposed to be the secret owner of every bar in town. He was supposed to be a big gun in the Dixie Mafia. He was supposed to have killed a dozen men and an uncertain number of women and children. None of us knew how much of it to believe, but we knew that our parents lowered their eyes when he rumbled down the street, usually with some nubile young thing clutching at him from behind.

        When we were older we’d dare each other to drive past his place. It was ten miles outside town, on a back country dirt road Google Maps wouldn’t want you to have anything to do with. Jaxon owned a few dozen acres, mostly woods and mire, edging up into the hills, all of it bounded by chain-link fence topped with spirals of razor wire. The areas nearest the road looked like a scrap yard, with rusted-out cars and farm machinery slowly disappearing into the green. Jaxon lived in a double-wide trailer smack in the middle of the fence line. A couple weeks after high school graduation I idled past the place, trying to impress the girl in the passenger seat. Jaxon was out on the deck built alongside his trailer. When he saw my car he picked up an AK-47 propped against the railing and let go a burst into the treetops. I damn near fishtailed off the road as I stomped on the gas. The girl wasn’t impressed.

        That was the last time I drove out past Colm Jaxon’s place. I hadn’t ever expected to go out there again.

        “This ain’t a good idea,” I told Dennis when we were back in the car and moving.

        “Grow some balls,” he said. He was fooling around with the wire cutters that were in the bag with the guns. There was a big roll of duct tape in the bag, and a couple of black ski masks. Bray held the guns while Dennis was inside, and added the other stuff at my cousin’s instructions. Neither of them would give me a straight answer on why Bray owed Dennis favors.

        “Let’s go up toward Chattanooga. We can hit a gas station. Like old times.”

        “Man, that ain’t shit. Everybody uses cards now. Be lucky to get a hundred bucks.”

        “What do you think you’ll get from Jaxon?”

        “Everybody knows he don’t use banks.” Dennis put the cutters down and took the Glock from the back of his belt. He ran his thumbs along the barrel. “All the money he’s ever made is out on his place somewhere. Probably buried. We’ll make him tell us where.”

        “That simple.”

        “Stop thinking he’s the fucking boogeyman.” Dennis put the gun back in his belt. “He was an old man when we were kids. Hell, he was an old man when our daddies were kids. Now he’s a crippled old man. Bray’s sister said he can barely stand up. Moves like a turtle.”

        “Turtles snap.”

        “Guy schooled me on this while I was inside,” he said, not listening to me. “How when an alpha wolf gets weak the pack turns on him, rips him apart.”

        “Let’s go to Sully’s. We can get drunk, shoot some pool, maybe pick up some girls.”

        Dennis stiffened and I knew I’d said the wrong thing. He’s never been with a woman he didn’t pay. He thinks that’s because he’s an incel, and the women of the world are engaged in a vast conspiracy to deny his God-given prowess and authority. Truth is he’s just an asshole, and the women of the world all decided, independently of each other, that he can go yank it.

        “Lightning, I’m going out to get Colm Jaxon’s money, and maybe kill the old bastard,” he said. “You can come with me, or get out right here.”

        Never mind that it was my damned car. Like I say. Asshole. But family.

        We pulled off the road fifty yards short of where Jaxon’s fence started. The moon gave us just enough light to walk on along the road. At the corner of the fence, Dennis knelt and snipped through the wire, peeling it back until he had a hole big enough for us. When we were inside, he pulled on his ski mask and handed the other one to me. I put it on, feeling ridiculous. The thing was rough and itchy, and in the humid night I immediately began soaking it in sweat.

        “Get out your gun,” Dennis hissed.

        I rolled my eyes, but took the little revolver out of my pocket and held it up. Dennis nodded and started walking, his gun in his right hand, his left running along the fence to keep his bearings. I followed, moving as quietly as I could, trying to forget the nightmares I’d had about this place and its owner. Being an asshole didn’t mean Dennis was automatically wrong about everything. Maybe this could work.

        We passed the big, looming shapes of decaying cars and tractors. We could see a light ahead, and as we crept closer we started to hear music. Country. Old country.

        Colm Jaxon was sitting at a picnic table on his deck, in the middle of a circle of light from a big halogen light on a pole. There was a radio on the table, a half-filled bottle of Jack Daniels, a pill bottle, and a big black wooden cane. He wore cut-off gray sweatpants and an unbuttoned flannel shirt, and his arms and calves were scrawny, skin stretched thin over bone and muscle. I didn’t see a gun, or any way he might have one on him. His beard was still mostly black, but the fringe of stringy hair around the bare top of his head was going white, and so was the patch of hair showing where the shirt opened. He was holding his right leg out at a strange angle. He didn’t look like a monster or a legendary outlaw. He looked like an old man.

        Dennis stepped into the light, pointing the gun at Jaxon. I came close behind, keeping my gun down by my side.

        “Hold it right there,” Dennis said. It was a stupid thing to say, since Jaxon wasn’t moving, but I suppose keep sitting down would’ve sounded even dumber.

        Jaxon looked at us. “I’ll be damned,” he said. “Fucking circus is in town and they sent over a couple clowns.” He picked up the Jack and took a long slug directly from the neck.

        “Keep your hands where we can see them,” Dennis said. He took a few steps closer.

        Jaxon lifted his hands from the table and waggled them. “You planning to say anything you didn’t hear on TV, kid?”

        “Shut up,” Dennis said. “Tell us where your money is.”

        “Make up your mind,” Jaxon said. “You want me to shut up, or tell you shit?”

        I saw Dennis tense. “Just do what I say.”

        “Jesus,” Jaxon said. “I’m too old for Halloween. Take off the fucking mask. I know you’re the Grubbs kid. Dennis, right?” He took another drink and looked at me. “Same for you, Lightning.”

        “You don’t know shit,” Dennis said, but his voice was cracking.

        “Give it up, Dennis,” I said. I pulled the mask off and dropped it in the dirt, feeling instant relief at the cool air on my cheeks and forehead. “Let’s get this over with.”

        Dennis looked back at me, his eyes enraged. He shook his head and snatched off the mask, leaving his hair sticking up at wild angles. “Fine,” he said. “Ain’t like he’s calling the cops.” He turned back to Jaxon. “You happy now?”

        “Fucking Grubbs,” Jaxon said. His voice sounded like he had a mass of rough pebbles stuck in his throat. “Your daddy ever talk about the time I beat him half to death with an axe handle? Can’t recall why. Never any shortage of reasons with a Grubbs.”

        “We’re not here for a history lesson,” Dennis said.

        “Or maybe that was your granddad. He was a prick, too.”

        “Enough,” Dennis said. “We know you have money out here. Buried money.”

        “Hell, yes,” Jaxon said. “More of it than I could ever spend.” He rubbed a finger in his eye. “All kinds of crap buried on this place. Stashes of guns. Some coke I took off a bunch of Mexicans down in Florida and haven’t gotten around to selling yet. Lost count of how many bodies.”

        “We just want the money,” Dennis said.

        Jaxon was looking at the bottle thoughtfully. “Maybe they were Colombians.” He shrugged and took another drink. “Everybody bleeds the same.” He shook a couple of pills into his palm and tossed them in his mouth.

        Dennis stepped up onto the deck. “Focus, damn it. Where’s the money?”

        Jaxon’s gaze drifted to Dennis’s face. Before he could say anything, the radio started playing “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Jaxon twisted the volume knob higher.

        “Turn that shit off,” Dennis said.

        “Fuck you,” Jaxon said. “Think you can come out here and rob me and turn off my music? You touch that radio and you’ll never see one red cent.” He narrowed his eyes. “You’re the kind of little asshole who thinks country music is guys named Brad and Blake.”

        “For the love of Christ,” I said. “Can we pick up the pace here? Mr. Jaxon, where can we find the money?”

        “Mr. Jaxon,” the old man said. “Don’t hear that much.” He waved his hand at the side of the trailer. “Flip that big fuckin’ switch, Lightning.”

        When I pulled the switch, a dozen more halogen lights on high poles burst alive, illuminating a couple of football fields’ worth of land in the middle of the compound. There was no shape or form to it, just a labyrinth of trees and brush and rusting old vehicles, with a few small sheds here and there.

        Jaxon jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “There’s a suitcase full of cash buried thirty yards or so back that way, between some old Mustangs.”

        “Come show us,” Dennis said.

        “Son, I can’t hardly get from here to the shitter on this leg.”

        Dennis pointed the gun at his face. “So suffer. You’re coming with us.”

        Jaxon snorted. “Guess you’ve got all fucking night.” He picked up the cane and levered himself to his feet. It hurt just to watch the way his right leg shook when he put weight on it. He took the Jack bottle in his left hand and started for the edge of the deck. “You criminal masterminds bring a shovel?”

        Dennis and I looked at each other.

        “What I figured.” Jaxon leaned against the railing and pointed with his cane. “There’s some in that nearest shed.” He lowered himself gingerly down the steps from the deck to the hard-packed earth. “Bring the radio, Lightning.”

        I picked up the radio. Dennis shook his head and gave Jaxon’s back the finger. “Stick close to him,” he said. I went down the steps after Jaxon. Dennis backed his way to the shed, watching Jaxon all the way. He picked up a couple of heavy spades and trotted back over to me.

        We stayed side by side, five or six yards behind Jaxon. After every few stumbling steps, he had to stop and catch his breath while we waited and watched. He leaned so heavily on the cane that I thought it might snap, and he kept up a constant stream of curses that almost drowned out the radio.

        He made his slow way around a little clump of brush pine. On the far side, hidden from the trailer and the road, three ancient Mustangs sat on their rims, making up three sides of a square. The fourth side was a bench seat from God knows what old car or truck, the vinyl surface cracked and fuzzy with patches of mold. Jaxon sank down onto it with a long groan.

        “Did I tell you to sit?” Dennis said.

        “Give it rest, Dennis,” I said.

        Jaxon’s face was pale and soaked with sweat. He raised the cane to point. “Dead middle between the cars,” he said. The cane shook in his hand.

        Dennis looked at the blank, bare earth. “I don’t see no signs of digging.”

        “I know it’s hard, son, but try to rub a couple brain cells together. What’s the point of burying something if everybody can tell where it’s buried?”

        Dennis grunted. He held out a shovel to me. “You dig. I’ll keep him covered.”

        “We can both dig,” I said. “I don’t think he’s going to jump us.”

        Dennis kept holding out the shovel. “Better be safe. I’ll spell you in a bit.”

        “Must be nice, being management.” I put my gun and the radio on the trunk of the wreck farthest from Jaxon. “How far down is it?” I asked him.

        Jaxon was still catching his breath, rubbing his right thigh. “Foot,” he said. “Maybe two.”

        “Great.” I stood at what I figured to be the middle of the square, pushed the tip of the shovel into the dirt and drove it in with my foot. Dennis leaned against one of the other Mustangs, keeping one eye on me and one on Jaxon.

        The earth was dry and dense and hard-packed, and in five minutes my shoulders were starting to ache. I rested a minute, leaning on the handle, looking up at the big poles. I could see the shadows of bats as they flitted around, hunting the bugs drawn by the glaring lights. I drove the shovel down again.

        “How much is in this suitcase?” Dennis asked.

        Jaxon snorted. “There’s no fucking suitcase.”

        I stopped digging and looked up at him. Dennis straightened. “What the hell does that mean?”

        “You think I’d bury shit this close to the road? They ever get a warrant on this place, they’ll dig for months before they find anything.”

        Dennis took three steps toward Jaxon and pointed the gun at his face. “You think I’m playing games?”

        Jaxon laid the cane across his knees. “I’m not giving you little shits anything. You planning to shoot, asshole? Now’s the time.”

        Dennis was a statue. I heard his breath rasping.

        Jaxon sneered. “That’s what I thought. No brains and no balls.”

        Dennis pulled the trigger.

        There was a sharp click that seemed much louder than it could have possibly been. Nothing else happened.

        Dennis looked at the gun, then glanced over his shoulder at me. I widened my eyes and shrugged. He pulled the trigger three more times and got three more clicks.

        “Let me ask you a question, Grubbs,” Jaxon said. His right hand was stuck into a deep tear in the vinyl of the bench. “Who do you think Bray Fusco is more scared of? You? Or me?” His hand came out of the tear holding an automatic. In one smooth, steady motion Jaxon brought it up and around and shot Dennis three times, the solid heavy booms coming so close together they were like one noise. My cousin jerked backwards, moved one foot like the beginning of trying to jump, then fell into a heap at the edge of the little hole I had made. Most of one side of his head was gone.

        A woman on the radio was singing something about honkytonk angels.

        My whole body was numb. It felt like an hour before I could make myself look up at Jaxon. When I did he was drinking from the Jack, his eyes watching me over it. The gun rested on the bench by his right hip.

        “Bray fixed the guns,” I said.

        “Bray ain’t stupid,” he said. “Your piece of shit cousin there might beat on him for a few minutes. I’d get him out here and do things that would take days.”

        My knuckles were white on the handle of the shovel. “Guess it’s my turn.”

        “I’m thinking on that,” he said. “How fast were you? Back when you ran?”

        “Never quite fast enough,” I said.

        “I used to be pretty good with this thing.” He patted the gun like it was a pet. “Quick. Accurate.”

        “You still looked pretty good to me, Mr. Jaxon.”

        “Luck. Instinct, I guess. I’m half tanked, and these fucking pills are doing a number on me.” Jaxon nodded at something out behind me. “You see the tree line there? Twenty yards or so off?”

        I peeked back over my shoulder. “I see it.”

        He put the bottle down on the side opposite the gun. “You run for those trees. Soon as you start, I pick up the gun and try for you.”

        I didn’t move. “Why?”

        Jaxon grinned. “I need to see how much I’ve lost.”

        I looked down at Dennis.

        “I guess your other choice is to try to jump me,” Jaxon said. “Either one suits me. Make your call, son.”

        His last word was still hanging in the air as I spun, using the motion to throw the shovel in his direction. I didn’t try to see where it hit. I pushed off with everything I had, dashing between two of the Mustangs, my eyes fixed on the place between two trees where I would dive into the bushes, my arms pumping, my feet skimming across the dirt.

        The trees were still five yards away when I heard Jaxon’s first shot.

Joseph S. Walker lives in Indiana and teaches college literature and composition courses. His short fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, Tough, and a number of other magazines and anthologies. He has been nominated for the Edgar Award and the Derringer Award and has won the Bill Crider Prize for Short Fiction. He also won the Al Blanchard Award in 2019 and 2021.