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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.