Showing posts with label michael bracken. Show all posts
Showing posts with label michael bracken. Show all posts

Monday, April 22, 2024

The Big Snip, fiction by Michael Bracken


My client lay on a hospital bed in the ICU, a machine breathing for her. Luckily, the baby was okay, but the blow to the side of Sydney Langstrom’s head had resulted in a traumatic brain injury, and several hours of surgery had not guaranteed a positive outcome, though the surgeon was hopeful.

* * *

A week earlier, Alice Frizell had sent Sydney upstairs to my office. Alice was the wisp of a tattoo artist who worked for my landlord, Millard Wayne Trout, owner of Millie’s Tattoos and Piercings, which operated out of the ground floor of a two-story building on Washington Avenue. Alice volunteered her time at a women’s shelter and had helped several women escape abusive relationships, occasionally with assistance from Millie and me.

Mr. Boyette?” the blonde coed said as she crested the stairs and saw me sitting behind my desk at one end of the second-floor’s single room. As I confirmed my identity, I rose to shake her hand. She introduced herself before settling into one of the chairs on the visitor side of my desk and then added, “I’m pregnant.”

I was uncertain what I should do with that information. “Do you need help traveling out of state to—”

She shook her head vigorously. “Oh, no, no, nothing like that. God forbid.”

Then what can I do for you?”

I need you to find the father.”

He skip town without a forwarding address?”

I wish it were that simple.” She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “I don’t even know who he is.”

I had questions, but she held up her hand to stop me before I could ask any of them.

Alice told me not to hold anything back, but I need to tell this my way.” And she did, beginning with an invitation to a frat party she barely remembered when she awoke in her own bed, her blouse misbuttoned and her underwear missing. “I knew something was wrong,” she said, “but I didn’t realize how wrong until a few weeks later. I took a home pregnancy test, and then I knew.”

As soon as Sydney saw the test result, she reported her situation to campus police. They took her statement. They also took a urine sample and a hair sample to test for flunitrazepam—better known by the brand name Rohypnol. More than two weeks had passed since the night she may have consumed the drug, and there was no trace of it in her system. Campus police interviewed a handful of people who were at the party, but few of them remembered seeing Sydney and no one saw her leave. At nine weeks, she could have a DNA test of the developing child, but she needed paternal DNA for comparison.

Campus police had done nothing for her. She concluded, “But someone saw something. Someone knows something.”

I don’t know that I can do any better than the campus police,” I said.

You certainly can’t do worse.”

I told her my day rate and she asked if I could take Venmo. I could, and by the time Sydney left my office, I had eight hundred dollars, a signed contract, and a list of people she remembered seeing at the party. She had a copy of my business card with my name—Morris Ronald Boyette—and my contact information thermographed on the front.

* * *

After my new client left, I walked downstairs to the tattoo parlor. Alice had a woman in her chair and Millie was entertaining Alice’s new border collie. Milo wore a cone of shame to keep him from licking himself following that morning’s neutering, and I reached inside the cone to scratch behind his ears.

Millie asked, “How’s it hanging, Moe Ron?”

No one else called me that. No one else dared. I replied, “Lower than Milo. You?”

Business is slow.” He indicated the woman Alice was inking. “Best we could do today is a trade with Milo’s vet.”

I took a closer look at the woman in the chair as Alice finished and pulled off her gloves. In her forties, muscular with graying hair cut high and tight, she had several cats inked on her left arm and several dogs on her right. Alice had just finished inking a chihuahua’s face between a German shepherd and a pug.

What’s with the menagerie?” I asked.

They’re the ones I couldn’t save.” She pointed to the bandage Alice had placed over her new tattoo. “Just the other day, I lost Pikachu to an aggressive cancer.”

She thanked Alice for her work, reminded her of Milo’s care plan, and headed out.

As she moseyed down the sidewalk toward her truck, I watched through the storefront windows. “The other tats don’t look like your work.”

They aren’t,” Alice said. “Drew—Drew Templeton—moved here a few months ago when she retired as an army veterinarian and took over a practice out by my place. We got to talking when I took Milo in for the big snip. She was looking for a local tattoo artist, so I offered a trade.”

Getting the lowdown on Alice’s newest client wasn’t my reason for visiting Millie’s, so I refocused my attention. “Sydney Langstrom just left my office. She said you sent her.”

I did,” Alice said. “Can you help her?”

I repeated what my client had told me and asked Alice if she knew anything more than I did.

She isn’t the first girl who’s been taken advantage of,” she said. “A lot of them just want to forget it ever happened, put it all behind them, and try to move on.”

What do you think she’ll do if I find the baby’s father?”

I don’t know,” Alice said. “I couldn’t get a good read on her.”

* * *

My first stop was at the apartment of Paige Ethridge, the girl who had invited Sydney to the party. A slim brunette wearing a university T-shirt and jeans, she invited me inside, offered sweet tea, and swore she’d told campus police everything she remembered about that night.

We walked over together ’cause Syd lives a block or so that way”—she waved vaguely northward—“and I had to walk past her place to get to the party, so we get there and, I don’t know, we hung together for maybe ten minutes, and then I saw Derek, a guy I know from sociology class, and he was with some other guy. Anyhow, me and Derek started talking and next thing I know Syd’s disappeared.”

She stopped for a breath, so I asked, “Disappeared?”

Not, like, literally. She must have been around somewhere, she just wasn’t hanging with me anymore. So, me and Derek hung together for the rest of the night. I didn’t see Syd again until a couple of days later, and she didn’t say anything about anything until, like, two weeks after the party, and she asked if I knew who she left with. I didn’t. I still don’t, and that’s what I told the campus cops.”

When I showed Paige the list of attendees Sydney had given me, she acknowledged seeing some of the people named on the short list, added a few more, and then shrugged.

I asked her several additional questions, trying to pry useful information out of her, but she had nothing else to offer.

* * *

Derek Jones answered my third knock, wearing nothing but an undershirt and a pair of tighty-whities, looking as if he’d just rolled out of bed. He didn’t invite me in, and we stood in the open doorway as I told him who I was and what I wanted.

I don’t know anything,” he said. He confirmed that he’d spent most of the evening with Paige. “Sydney, the girl she came with? I don’t know who she left with.”

He didn’t have anything else to tell me, and he didn’t add any names to the list Sydney had given me, even when I asked about the guy Paige had seen him talking to. “I don’t remember.”

After leaving Derek, I moved on to the next name on the list, another student who lived in the neighborhood around the university.

During the next few days, I knocked on dozens more doors and spoke to dozens more students without learning much more than I already knew. Almost everyone I spoke with remembered someone else who was at the party, so my list of students to track down grew ever longer. Each evening, after I felt certain her afternoon classes had ended, I phoned my client to update her on my growing list and my lack of progress.

I wasn’t pleased with the little I had to report each day, but Sydney insisted I continue, repeating her admonition from our first meeting.

Someone knows something, Mr. Boyette,” she said each time, reminding me, on more than one occasion, that Alice Frizell had insisted I was her only hope. I worried that Alice had oversold my capabilities.

* * *

Late one afternoon, after my daily conversation with Sydney, I phoned Bonita Martinez, the attorney I was keeping time with, and suggested we meet for dinner.

I had not seen Bonita since taking Sydney’s case because she had been out of town. So, over spring rolls and pineapple fried rice at a Vietnamese restaurant downtown, she told me about helping her daughter get settled in her new San Antonio apartment and I told her about Sydney.

You find the father,” Bonita said, “I’ll make certain he pays child support.”

You think he’ll want visitation?”

Not when I get through with him.”

Our conversation drifted toward more pleasant topics, including plans to attend a Lyle Lovett concert out of town.

I had hoped to extend dinner into an evening at Bonita’s home, but a phone call as we were leaving the restaurant changed my plans. I saw Millie’s name on my cell phone’s caller ID, so I answered. “What’s up?”

Alice needs our help.”

That only meant one thing. One of the women she was helping needed to relocate in a hurry.

Bonita could hear Millie’s voice even though I did not have the phone on speaker. “Go,” she said. “Stop by after. It doesn’t matter what time.”

We had reached Bonita’s car by then, so I kissed her and headed to my car. I still had my phone pressed to my ear and Millie provided the address where I should meet him.

* * *

Tattoos covered every visible part of Millie’s body but his face and his palms, and his appearance was frightening enough to shrink the average man’s testicles. That’s why Alice, Jessie, and I stood behind him when he pounded on the door of a single-wide mobile home in Robinson, a town that butted up against the southeast side of Waco.

The man who jerked the door open was every bit as intimidating as Millie, with muscular arms, a thick torso and heavy belly that stretched the fabric of his too-tight wife-beater, and a face that broke mirrors when he glanced in their direction. “Yeah?”

Millie said, “We came for Jessie’s things.”

Jessie’s husband looked around Millie and saw the rest of us. “You brought reinforcements, Jessie?”

Talk to me,” Millie said.

Tipsy?” Jessica said as she tried to squeeze around us. “Where’s my dog? Where’s Tipsy?”

I kicked her little ass—”

The dog? You kicked the f’ing dog?” Millie’s right hand shot forward, breaking the man’s nose. I didn’t see the brass knuckles until Millie drew back his fist.

Jessie’s husband stepped backward but didn’t fall. He didn’t even react to the blood pouring from his broken nose. As he raised his fists to defend himself, Millie drove a bootheel into his kneecap. Jessie’s husband stumbled backward and dropped backward into a La-Z-Boy recliner. I doubted he could get up, but he maintained his attitude.

You want the little bitch, you can take her, and good riddance to the lot of you.”

I didn’t know if he meant the dog or his wife.

Get your stuff,” Alice commanded. “I’ll look for Tipsy.”

Jessie wasn’t much bigger than Alice, with a black eye and bruises on her arms and neck. I walked her past her husband to their bedroom and stood in the doorway, watching her gather her things. She didn’t have luggage, so she stuffed everything into several plastic trash bags, and I helped her carry them out to Alice’s pickup.

As we loaded the last of Jessie’s things, Alice rounded the far end of the mobile home with a West Highland White Terrier in her arms. “I found Tipsy.”

The woman ran toward her, crying.

Alice handed the dog to me. “I already phoned Drew. She’ll be waiting at the clinic. Get Tipsy there as fast as you can.”

* * *

Tipsy’s going to be okay,” Drew said an hour later, “I’ll need to keep her a few days for observation, but I won’t be adding her to my arm anytime soon.”

I don’t think her person will be able to pay for your services.”

Don’t worry about it.” Drew eased the Westie into a small cage between an ailing dachshund and a cross-eyed pug. “Alice told me what she does with her free time, and I told her I would help any way I could. There aren’t always enough resources for abused women, but there’re hardly any for their pets.”

She asked how I’d gotten involved with Alice, and I told her about my long-term relationship with her employer. “Millie wasn’t my landlord when we first met,” I said. “I had an office behind his place, and back then I did a lot of work for a bail bondsman. Millie picked up extra folding money helping me. After a few years, when his business increased, he hired Alice. So, I’ve known them for a long time.”

Well, you let me know if there’s ever anything I can do.”

After I told her I would, I headed to Bonita’s house, where we shared a bottle of wine and the pleasure of each other’s company.

* * *

The next morning, I drove from Bonita’s home, where I kept a toothbrush and a change of clothes, to my office. I paid bills, answered a few emails, and agreed to serve a subpoena in Lorena for a downtown law office. I didn’t return to work on Sydney’s case until early afternoon.

As before, the first few students I spoke with either had no memory of Sydney being at the party or, if they did remember seeing her, hadn’t seen her leave. Then I knocked on Madison Cromwell’s door.

Madison wasn’t on Sydney’s list. I’d added her when one of the other students mentioned having seen her there. The plump brunette opened her apartment door as far as the safety chain would allow. I slipped my business card through the opening, told her who I was, and explained why I wanted to talk to her.

She backed away from the door and used her cell phone to dial my number. My phone rang, so I answered it. “We good?”

Madison unfasted the safety chain and let me into her living room. She wore a crisp white blouse, a blue skirt, and mid-height black heels. She settled onto the couch and smoothed her skirt over her knees. I settled onto an overstuffed chair on the other side of a coffee table that held an empty coffee mug, several magazines, and an open laptop computer. As we sat facing each other, she made me repeat the reason for my visit.

Like many of the other students I’d spoken with, she didn’t know Sydney, but she had used her cell phone to take photographs of the party, and she had transferred the photos to her computer. We scrolled through them, looking for Sydney and anyone she might have been speaking with. I saw one photo of my client with Paige and Derek, another of her talking to a coed I had already interviewed, and one of her accepting a drink from someone who stood off camera. I had Madison enlarge the photograph until we were looking at a close-up view of the hand presenting the drink to her. The hand clearly belonged to someone male and there was a gold signet ring on his left pinky finger.

I looked up at Madison. “You show this to campus police?”

She shook her head. “They never contacted me.”

They had given up too soon, confirming my client’s belief that they hadn’t done enough.

I asked Madison to email the photos to me, but she said there were too many. “How about I Dropbox them?”

She used the email address on my business card to share a folder with me, and then she copied all her party photos into it. When she finished, she said, “I hope you catch the guy.”

I thanked her, returned to my office, and had to have Alice Frizell come upstairs to show me how to access the Dropbox folder. Milo was with her but without the cone of shame, and he curled up on my couch while we examined all the photos on my Macintosh’s large screen.

Madison had not been taking photos of people’s hands, and of the few male hands we could see in the photos, only the one handing Sydney a drink wore a signet ring.

I enlarged the photo of the ring and printed several copies on high quality photo paper. Even then, neither Alice nor I could read the initials monogrammed on it.

* * *

That afternoon and the next day, I finished visiting all the students named on the extended list. In addition to my questions, I showed them the photo of the signet ring. That elicited the same reactions as my questions. Only a few remembered Sydney, none remembered seeing her leave, and no one recognized the ring.

I had no one else to interview, so I started over at the top of the list, this time intending to ask about the ring. Paige Ethridge opened her door before I had a chance to knock.

I saw you pull in,” she said. “Did you find the guy? Tell me you found the guy.”

I told her I hadn’t, and I showed her the photo of the ring.

She stared hard at it. “I don’t know, maybe. Not many guys wear rings on their pinky fingers. I mostly see guys wearing their high school class rings. I’ve even see a few wearing wedding rings. Imagine that, married and not even finished with college. I don’t know why—”

You’re certain you’ve never seen the ring before?”

I can’t say. I just don’t know.” She squinted hard. “What’s that on the ring? Is that, like, someone’s initials?”

I told her I thought so.

Too bad you can’t read them. That would help a lot, wouldn’t it?”

I told her it would.

You thirsty?” she asked. “I’m sorry, I should have asked earlier. I was just so excited to think you might have found the guy who attacked Sydney. Do you want some sweet tea?”

I declined her offer, thanked her, and took my leave.

* * *

I visited Derek Jones’s apartment next. He wasn’t home, so I revisited the next half dozen people on my list and discovered that showing them the photograph of the ring didn’t generate any new information.

After a quick dinner at Vitek’s Market, I returned to Derek’s. He jerked open the door, saw me, and said, “You again. What do you want now?”

He was dressed this time, in jeans and a university T-shirt, and again he stood in his open doorway blocking my entrance. I showed him the photograph.

He barely glanced at it. “Nope. Don’t know anything.”

I didn’t like his attitude, so I pressed the flat of my hand against his chest and encouraged him to step backward and continue stepping backward until his calves hit a mangy green couch. He sat abruptly. I dropped the photograph into his lap. “Take a closer look.”

He glanced at the photograph but didn’t touch it.

Paige said you were talking to someone when she met you at the party.”

Yeah, so?”

What’s his name?”

Bite me.”

I grabbed the front of his shirt, lifted him to his feet, and pressed my forehead against his. As I stared into his eyes, said, “How hard do you want to make this?”

His eyes went wide when he realized I was serious. For all his attitude, Derek was weak, and he broke. He swallowed hard. “Eddie.”

His full name.”

Edward Barron Winthrop.”

Winthrop’s name wasn’t on my list. I directed Derek’s gaze to the photograph on the floor. “He wear a ring like this?”

I never—yes—yes, he does wear a ring. Maybe that’s his.”

And he left the party with Sydney Langstrom?”

Maybe. He left with somebody. It could have been her.”

And how do you know?”

He told me about it after.”

I made Derek repeat what Winthrop had told him, and I had no way to know if what he said was true because Sydney had not remembered a thing about that night. Then Derek added, “He kept her underwear. He always keeps their underwear.”

That’s when I knew. “There have been others?”

I don’t know. That’s what he says.” He dug in his pocket and then handed me a snack-sized baggie containing a single pill. “He gave me this. It’s a roofie. Eddie says he can get me more if I want them.”

You use one of these on Paige?”

He shook his head vigorously. “No. Never.”

I told him what would happen to him if I ever heard different. Then I shoved the pill into my pocket and Derek back onto the couch. “How do I find Winthrop?”

He graduated last December, but he still lives nearby, and he still comes to some of the parties.” He gave me an address.

* * *

Edward Barron Winthrop lived better than most of the students I had visited, in a two-bedroom brick bungalow with a recent model Cadillac Escalade parked in the driveway. After he responded to my knock, I identified myself and showed him my business card. He didn’t take it from my hand. Instead, he invited me inside, offered me a drink, and poured himself three fingers of scotch when I declined.

He didn’t sit, so neither did I, and I looked around. Unlike most of the apartments I had been visiting, which were decorated in college-student chic and furnished with cast-offs, Winthrop’s living room featured black leather furniture, chrome-and-glass end tables, and several baseball trophies but no books in the bookcase. An aluminum baseball ball leaned against a small table near the door, and a baseball cap and a fielder’s glove wrapped around a hardball lay atop the table.

He held his drink in his left hand. After taking a sip, he asked, “What can I do for you?”

Sydney Langstrom.”

Doesn’t ring a bell.”

I showed him the photograph. “This is you handing her a drink at a frat party a few weeks ago.”

He glanced at it. “That’s just a hand.”

And that’s your ring on it.”

His gaze darted to his left hand. If I had blinked, I would have missed it. “So?”

What was in the drink?”

Looks like a Coke on the rocks.”

You roofie’d her.”

Doubt you could prove it, even if I had.” He took another sip of his Scotch.

She’s pregnant.”

And she thinks I’m the sperm donor?” he sputtered. “She want me to pay for the procedure? Well, too fucking bad. She’s not getting a cent from me.”

You think she wants money?”

What does any woman want from a guy like me?”

I don’t think any woman wants anything from a guy like you. That’s why you drug them.”

He smirked. “As if.”

I knew I wouldn’t get an admission from Winthrop, but I knew what he had done. I just needed to prove it, and I needed to prove it long before Sydney could get a DNA test on her unborn child.

I thanked him for his time and stepped toward the door.

As I opened it, Winthrop said, “Next time you want to talk to me, call my father’s attorney.”

* * *

I phoned Sydney to let her know I might have found her baby’s father. I checked my watch when my client didn’t answer, realized she was in her afternoon English Lit class, and left a brief message. Then Alice phoned and told me Tipsy was ready to return home. I drove out to Drew’s clinic and picked up a carry crate with the Westie inside. I didn’t know the location of the women’s shelter, so I headed downtown, took Tipsy into Millie’s, and left the little dog with Alice and Milo.

By then I was late for a dinner date with Bonita and didn’t think about Sydney again until halfway through dessert when Bonita asked how my search was going. I told her I’d found the father and that I had left a voice mail telling my client I had found him.

And she hasn’t returned your call?”

I took out my phone and looked for missed calls and missed text messages. I didn’t see anything from Sydney. “Not yet.”

I tried calling her. Again, she didn’t answer. I left another voice mail.

Think you should check on her?”

Do you mind? We can swing by her apartment on the way home.”

Half an hour later we found Sydney’s apartment door open and her lying on the kitchen floor, a pool of blood matting her hair and surrounding her head. While I ensured that my client was still breathing, Bonita phoned first responders.

* * *

As we waited for the EMTs, I contacted Millie, told him about Sydney, and asked him to pick me up at her apartment complex because I needed to leave my car with Bonita.

An ambulance arrived, and the EMTs pushed us aside as they worked on Sydney I ducked out before the police arrived, leaving Bonita to answer their questions, and I waited in the alley behind the building for Millie.

On the way to Winthrop’s home, I brought Millie up to speed on my case, showing him the roofie Derek had given me and dropping the little plastic bag on his car’s center console as he pulled into the alley behind Winthrop’s home.

We watched the place for several minutes. Once we were certain Winthrop was alone, I walked around to the front door and leaned into the bell.

Winthrop answered, a smirk on his face.

Behind him I saw the little table with the baseball cap, glove, and hardball on it. The aluminum bat was gone. “You didn’t hit a homerun,” I said. “She’s still alive.”

The smirk disappeared.

I lied and said, “And she can identify you.”

Winthrop spun around and ran through the house, with me close behind. I needn’t have bothered. As he burst out of the back door, Millie clotheslined him, and he dropped like a sack of rocks. We zip tied his hands behind his back and tossed him into the trunk of Millie’s car.

As I was about to close the lid, Millie’s said, “Will you look at that?”

I turned to see the handle of an aluminum bat sticking out of the trash bin next to the garage. Mille had a plastic grocery bag I could use as a makeshift glove, and I pulled the blood-stained bat from the bin and tossed it into the trunk with Winthrop.

I wanted to deliver both to the Waco Police, but Millie had another idea. He wouldn’t tell me what he had planned when he dropped me off outside his tattoo parlor.

You go on now,” he said. “I got this.”

What’re you going to do?”

Nothing you need to know about.”

I phoned Bonita to let her know where I was, and then I entered the tattoo parlor to visit with Alice, Milo, and Tipsy until Bonita arrived.

* * *

The next morning, a maid found Edward Barron Winthrop in a cheap Lacy-Lakeview motel room, naked except for a cone of shame around his neck, his testicles in a jar of formaldehyde on the dresser, and a baseball bat with my client’s blood on it in the bed with him. He tested positive for flunitrazepam and had no memory of the previous evening.

When police found a cache of flunitrazepam and a dozen pairs of women’s underwear—all different sizes and styles—in Winthrop’s apartment, they were less concerned about his surgery and more about locating his victims.

During the following months, DNA tests confirmed that Sydney’s baby was Winthrop’s. The DA charged him with attempted murder but let his father’s high-priced attorneys plead the charge down to aggravated assault. They didn’t bother pursuing additional charges against him when none of his other victims came forward. Bonita filed a civil case against the Winthrop family and helped negotiate a million-dollar settlement for Sydney and her child, one that ensured that the baby’s father would never contact her or the child.

And ten months after Sydney Langstrom first walked into my office, I tore open a square envelope bearing a St. Louis postmark but no return address. Inside was a generic card with an artist’s rendering of the St. Louis Arch on the front. I opened the card and a wallet-sized photograph of Sydney holding a months-old baby boy fell onto my desktop. Sydney’s left eye no longer stared straight ahead, but the baby appeared healthy. Inside the card, she had written, “Little Morris and I are doing fine.”

I put the photo into the card, put the card into the envelope, and put the envelope into my desk. Then I went downstairs and found Alice tattooing the face of a Siamese cat onto Drew Templeton’s left forearm.

I asked about Jessie and Tipsy and learned they were living in San Marcos.

Michael Bracken ( is the Edgar Award and Shamus Award nominated, Derringer-winning author of more than 1,200 short stories, including crime fiction published in The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, Tough, and many other publications. Additionally, Bracken is the editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and several anthologies, including the Anthony Award-nominated The Eyes of Texas. He lives, writes, and edits in Texas.

Monday, June 19, 2023

Bottom Girl, fiction by Michael Bracken


A thick blonde, half as wide as she was tall, sporting a bouffant that added three inches to her diminutive height, stood behind the screen door and stared up at me like I was that day’s blue-plate special. In a voice that dripped southern honey, she asked, “Can I do for you, hon?”

I introduced myself as I pressed a 4” x 5” print of Elka Schubert’s high school graduation portrait against the screen. “Do you know this girl?”

“Can’t say as I do.” Dixie Lynn Hollis unlatched the screen door. “Y’all want to come in out of the heat, Mr. Johnson, maybe have some sweet tea? I could look at that there picture a bit closer.”

I drew back the photo of Elka, and the woman behind the door pushed it open.

“No, thank you.”

She batted her false eyelashes. “I can surely show you a good time, hon, take your mind off that young thing.”

I pressed one of my business cards into her soft hand. “You see her around, you call me.”

Without looking at the card that identified me as a private investigator, she stuffed it into her ample cleavage and smiled. “Could have been you in there.”

I thanked Dixie Lynn for her time and returned to my SUV. She was still standing in her open doorway when I drove off, but her expression had hardened.

* * *

“I’ve talked to everyone living in a three-block radius,” I told Elka’s mother later that evening, “and no one knows anything.”

Anna Schubert and I spoke over mismatched mugs of black coffee while sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table in her two-bedroom brick ranch. Though I had tasted mine, my client’s coffee had not been touched since she’d placed the mugs on the table.

“Didn’t the police already talk to everyone?”

“Not everyone,” I explained, “and they won’t put much more effort into finding Elka until they have a good reason to believe she isn’t just avoiding you. I’ve been trying to find that reason.”

“But it’s been three weeks, and I’ve called her friends, and—”

I reached across the table and placed my hand on my client’s forearm. “You told the police about your argument. That’s why they think she ran off.”

All parents establish rules that their children resist, so Anna and Elka’s argument had not been unusual. Anna and her eighteen-year-old daughter had disagreed about the curfew Anna had set and Elka had violated once too often. The argument had included variations of “my house, my rules” and “if you can’t abide by them, you should leave.” After that, Elka stormed off to her room and slammed the door. Anna did the same.

The following morning, Anna opened her daughter’s bedroom door intending to apologize for the more egregious things she had said, but Elka wasn’t there, her bed had not been slept in, and her purse was missing. Calls to her daughter’s friends yielded no information about Elka’s whereabouts, so Anna phoned the police, who made a cursory attempt to locate her, and two weeks later she phoned me.

I had made no more progress during the week I raced through my client’s retainer than the police had made with their half-hearted efforts. I didn’t want to tell Anna that her daughter likely wasn’t coming home, but someone had to.

So I did.

The last glimmer of hope drained from Anna’s face.

“But, Stu, you promised—”

“I did all I could.”

“I can get more money. I can—” She twisted at the wedding ring and diamond solitaire engagement ring on her left hand, which she still wore despite her husband’s death in Afghanistan a few years earlier. “I can—”

“I can’t take any more of your money,” I told her. I was younger then, idealistic enough to chase every lead but honest enough to know when they weren’t leading anywhere. “Do you have someone you can call? Family? Friend? Pastor?”

She shook her head.

And then she stared into my eyes.

“Stay with me,” she said. “Hold me. Just for tonight.”

* * *

As the years passed, I thought of Anna Schubert and her missing daughter less and less often. I might have eventually forgotten them if I had not flipped open the Waco Tribune-Herald one morning ten years after abandoning the case and seen Dixie Lynn Hollis staring back at me from a photograph under the headline “Seven arrested on sex trafficking charges.”

I dug through my files and found a folder containing a compact disk and Elka Schubert’s high school graduation photo, and I was staring at the photograph when my desk phone rang. I didn’t need the caller to identify herself.

“Did you see this morning’s paper?” Anna Schubert demanded. “That woman lived three blocks from us. Three blocks! Did you even talk to her?”

“I did,” I said.


“She gave me no reason to think she knew anything about your daughter’s disappearance.”

“And now? What do you think now?”

What I thought was that I had failed Anna. That I had failed her daughter. That I had failed myself. What I said was, “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry doesn’t begin to atone for your inability to find my daughter, you son-of-a-bitch.” Anna still had a landline, and she slammed the handset down, disconnecting the call.

* * *

My former client’s neighborhood had aged. Once a well-established middle-class area populated by the original homeowners, it had degenerated into a hodgepodge of rentals, where absentee landlords cared as little for the property as the tenants did. When Anna opened her door, I saw that time had taken a greater toll on her than on the neighborhood.

Her pale blue eyes widened when she saw me standing on her broken concrete porch, and she moved backward as I pushed the door open wide enough to step into the living room. She had replaced her quality console television with a larger flat-screen mounted to the wall, but little else had changed. Her dead husband’s Army Ranger School graduation photograph remained on one end of the fireplace mantle and her missing daughter’s high school graduation photo on the other. I did not push any further, but I suspected that little had changed in the rest of the house and that Elka’s bedroom remained much as it had been the night she left home.

The anger Anna had vented on the phone earlier that morning had not dissipated, and she glared up at me. “Why did you come here, Mr. Johnson?”

I wasn’t entirely certain. Perhaps I needed to gaze into Anna’s eyes and see all the pain that remained. Instead of answering her question, I asked one of my own. “Why are you still here? The memories must be—”

“Because I need to be here when my daughter comes home.”

Anna had used the money from her husband’s Department of Defense death gratuity and Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance policy to purchase the house and the now twelve-year-old Dodge Caravan parked in the drive. She had put some aside to pay for Elka’s college expenses, and she and her daughter had been living off the remainder when we first met. I suspected the money was gone, or nearly so, and that she could not have afforded to move even if she wished to.

She said, “So why are you here?”

Until that moment I’d been uncertain myself. I said, “I’m going to try again.”

* * *

I stored my case files electronically, and I realized after Anna Schubert’s telephone call earlier that morning that Elka’s files had been moved to a compact disc for which my new Macintosh lacked an appropriate drive. After I left Anna’s home, I purchased a CD drive at Best Buy, expecting to return to my office, hook it up, pop in the CD, and review all of my notes from back then.

What I did not expect was finding Dixie Lynn Hollis standing at my office door, the business card I had given her ten years earlier grasped between her pudgy fingers. She had, at some point, removed it from her ample cleavage and retained it for no reason I could fathom.

I unlocked the door and pushed it open. The two rooms I rented in the Alico Building included a receptionist’s area and my office on the other side of it. I’d never had a receptionist, but I ensured that the desk always looked as if someone had just stepped away. Dixie Lynn followed me through the reception area into my office and, as I put the bag containing my new CD drive on my desk, I asked, “What do you want?”

“To hire you.” The southern honey I remembered had disappeared from her voice. The bouffant had also disappeared, and her dishwater blond hair hung limply to her shoulders.


“You see this morning’s Trib?”

The open paper on my desk told her I had.

“I done a lot of things in my life I ain’t proud of,” she said, “but I never done—”

I glared at her and she swallowed the lie she was about to spew.

She pulled ten sweaty hundred-dollar bills from her cleavage and spread them across my desk—dirty money, not only from where she kept it but also from how she earned it.

“I don’t want your money.”

Dixie Lynn took another tack as she pointed at the photo of Elka Schubert on my desk next to the newspaper. “You never found her, did you, that girl you were looking for?”

My eyes narrowed but I didn’t answer.

“I had nothing to do with that,” Dixie Lynne said, “but maybe by helping me you’ll find out who did.”


“I can point you in the right direction,” she said. “There ain’t much more I can do.”

I still had not sat, and I did not offer her a seat. “What do you think I can do for you?”

She hesitated, as if trying to determine which of several stories she might tell me. Finally, she said, “I ain’t done what I done because I find enjoyment in it.”

“So what do you get out of it?”


That made no sense to me, and I said so. “You get convicted for sex trafficking, you’ll likely spend the remainder of your life behind bars.”

“Beats the needle.”

“You’re telling me you did something that could get you the death penalty?”

“My father died when I was seven,” she said. “My mother remarried when I was nine, and when I was thirteen, puberty caught my stepfather’s attention. I’m not about to tell you everything he did to me, but he certainly wasn’t gentle. My mother wouldn’t do a thing to stop him, and I was too scared to tell anyone else what was happening.”

I listened carefully. Her recitation didn’t sound well-rehearsed, but it did sound as if she’d told the story before.

“I put on weight, hoping that would discourage him. It didn’t. He laughed and told me the bigger the cushion the better the pushin’, and it was too late. I drank to numb the pain, but I could never drink enough. By the time I was seventeen, I looked like this”—she spread her arms to ensure I grasped the enormity of her—“and I’d had enough.”

I couldn’t help myself. “What happened?”

“My stepfather’s best friend found me on my eighteenth birthday, waking up from a blackout drunk in my parents’ living room with a .38 in my hand and my stepfather on the other side of the room with two bullet holes in his chest.”

“You shot him?”

“Somebody certainly did,” Dixie Lynn said. “Trevor took the gun from my hand and told me to wait until he left before calling the cops. He told me to tell them the truth—that I woke up from a blackout drunk and found my stepfather dead in the room with me. He told me not to tell anyone about the gun, that he would take care of it. He told me not to tell them he was there.”

I glanced down at the front page of that morning’s Waco Tribune-Herald and found Trevor Cash’s mugshot printed two to the right of Dixie Lynn’s. I tapped my index finger on it. “And the police never cottoned to him or to the gun?”

She shook her head. “My stepfather had a record, and there were enough people who carried grudges against him that the cops had at least a dozen suspects. They weren’t able to pin his murder on any of them, and nobody—not even my mother—mourned his loss enough to push them to do their job. After that, my mother kicked me out, and I would have been living on the street if Trevor hadn’t taken me in. He never touched me, but—” She took a deep breath and stared past me.

After a moment of silence, I prompted her. “But?”

Her attention returned to me. “He wanted me to get him girls. He said if I didn’t, he would tell the police I killed my stepfather and he would give them the gun as proof. He’s held that over me ever since.”

“So what do you think I can do for you?”

“Get the gun. Get the gun before Trevor can use it against me.”

“And then you’ll tell me what happened to Elka Schubert?”

“That was her name?” Dixie Lynn shook her head. “I didn’t remember. There’ve been so many girls.”

She told a hell of a story. It might even have been true. Then she went a step too far.

“The thing is, these girls, a lot of them, they want what happens to them. At least, they think they do. They think they want to be wild and crazy and have sex with older men and by the time they find out what’s really involved, it’s too late for any of them to get out.”

“So, what happened to Elka?”

“When she got too old for our clients, we sold her to a guy in Dallas,” Dixie Lynn said. “I don’t know if she’s still with him, but it’s a place to start.”


“You have to help me first.”

We stared at one another for a moment, and then Dixie Lynn turned and walked out of my office. When she was gone, I stood in the window and stared down at Austin Avenue. After several minutes passed, I turned and used the eraser end of a pencil to push the sweaty hundreds into my top desk drawer.

* * *

After spending some time searching the internet, I made two phone calls, the first to a homicide detective in the Waco Police Department. I asked her about the murder of Reggie Wilson. She didn’t recognize the name.

“It was well before your time,” I said.

“Cold case?”


Templeton Walker laughed. She had a pleasant laugh.

“I’ll have to poke around,” she said. “What’re you really after?”

I told her.

“This’ll cost you.”

“How much?”

“Dinner,” she said. “Tonight.”


“You read my mind.”

* * *

I made my second phone call to Alfredo Martinez in Dallas. Alfredo ran a shelter for runaways, and a year earlier I’d sub-contracted work from a Dallas private investigation firm to help locate a young boy who had disappeared from the shelter. Ricky had left behind everything but the clothes on his back and some friends who said a man in a blue van promised to take him to see the mammoths. The man had kept his promise, and I arrived at the Waco Mammoth National Monument just as they were leaving. Ricky was surprisingly none the worse for his experience, having been rescued before the man could molest him.

I told Alfredo about Elka Schubert and that she might have been sold to a guy in Dallas sometime during the previous ten years. “She’d be twenty-eight now,” I said, “so a little old to be one of your clients.”

“Still, I can ask around. The kids we take off the streets see things most people never notice,” he said. “Send me a photo?”

I promised I would, but first I had to hook up my new CD drive. After I did, I sent Alfredo an email containing the JPEG I’d made when I scanned Elka Schubert’s graduation portrait ten years earlier.

* * *

Over dinner I learned that Dixie Lynn’s story—at least as much of it as the police knew—checked out. When she was a teenager her stepfather had been shot twice with a .38.

“The only witness was his stepdaughter,” Templeton said, “but she’d apparently been passed out drunk when it happened.”

“Any suspects?”

“A dozen or more, but nothing concrete. The investigators assigned to the case had more pressing responsibilities and lost interest after a couple of weeks. I checked Reggie Wilson’s rap sheet. No cop wants to let a murderer walk the streets, but whoever shot Wilson did the world a favor.”

“You know his stepdaughter was arrested as part of that sex-trafficking ring on the front page of today’s Trib.”

“That why you’re interested?”

“Indirectly.” I told her about my aborted search for Elka Shubert. “Dixie Lynn Hollis was one of the people I spoke to ten years ago. After seeing her picture in the paper, I decided to take a closer look at her, see what I missed back then.”

“And what you missed was her stepfather’s murder?”

“What I missed was her involvement in a sex trafficking ring,” I said. “What caught my eye, though, was her stepfather’s death. I thought I’d follow-up on that, see if it gives me any leverage with Dixie Lynn.”

“Who’s your client on this one?”

“Anna Schubert, Elka’s mother.”

“You exhausted that retainer a long time ago, though, didn’t you?”

I nodded.

“So you’re really doing this for yourself.”

I didn’t mention the ten sweaty hundreds Dixie Lynn had given me. “Yeah, I guess I am.”

She reached across the table and laid her hand on my forearm. “I get it,” she said. “We all have cases that haunt us, things we missed or think we might have missed.”

I didn’t admit that I’d nearly forgotten the case until that morning’s newspaper brought everything rushing back.

Templeton stared deep into my eyes. I’m not certain what she saw, but she said, “Why don’t you spend the night at my place, and we’ll exorcise those demons.”

* * *

Templeton had already left for work by the time I awoke and returned to my own place for a shower, a change of clothes, and a few thoughts about how I would approach the day.

I had a lead—a tenuous one—but I wasn’t about to share the news with Anna Schubert. I had failed her once and I had no desire to fail her again.

Because I couldn’t drive up to Dallas and walk the streets asking about Elka, I chose instead to work Dixie Lynn’s case. That meant locating Trevor Cash, who had already posted bail, and having a fist-to-face conversation. A quick internet search and a phone call to confirm the information I’d found was all it took to locate him.

I didn’t want Trevor to know the real reason for my visit, so I pocketed a copy of Elka’s photograph. Then I drove to a tumbledown duplex in Beverly Hills—a small town completely surrounded by Waco—and leaned into the bell.

Uglier in person than in the mugshot printed in the newspaper, Trevor jerked open the door and growled, “Yeah?”

“We need to talk.”

He looked me up and down. “You somebody’s daddy?”

I grabbed a fistful of Trevor’s shirt, lifted him to his toes, and walked him backward into the living room. I kicked the door shut with the heel of my boot and pushed him down. He landed on the couch and sprang back up. He wasn’t prepared for the fist in his chest that stole his breath, made his eyes bulge, and crumpled him back onto the couch.

I flipped my wallet open just long enough for him to see my private investigator’s license, but too fast for him to realize I wasn’t a peace officer. “I saw your picture in the paper,” I said, “and I thought you could help me find someone.”

He caught his breath. “Find who?”

I showed him Elka Shubert’s high school graduation photo.

He shook his head. “Don’t know her.”

“Ten years ago,” I said. “Dixie Lynn probably recruited her.”

“Still don’t know her.” He seemed to have caught his breath but he wasn’t moving.

“But you know Dixie Lynn.”

“Hard to deny that,” he said, “our picture in the paper and all.”

“You’ve known her a long time,” I said, “since she was a kid.”

Trevor was slower to answer this time. “Yeah. And—?”

“She says you killed her father.”

“She says I—?” He sprang from the couch. “She’s lying!”

I pushed him back down.

“She had the gun in her hand when I found her. Her fingerprints are all over it.”

He had easily convinced a scared young woman who wanted her step-father dead that she had killed him, and he had lorded it over her well into middle age. I suspected the truth lay elsewhere. I asked, “Why’d you kill Reggie Wilson? What did he have that you wanted? And why’d you try to pin it on Dixie Lynn?”

Trevor made yet another attempt to deny the obvious. I wouldn’t let him, and after some additional back-and-forth that made my knuckles sore, he came clean.

“We were working a deal and he tried to screw me out of my half. I confronted him and he drew on me. One thing led to another and I took his gun away. I had to shoot him to protect myself.”

“You’re saying it was self-defense?”

“Yeah.” Trevor nodded rapidly, thinking I was buying the story he was selling. “Yeah, it was.”

“So why’d you put Dixie Lynn in the middle of it?”

“It wasn’t until after I’d shot Reggie that I noticed her passed out in the corner. I wiped my prints off and put the gun in her hand, figuring the cops would tumble to her, but she came to. I had to do something, so I convinced her she’d done it, and I told her I would get rid of the gun.”

“And later?”

He looked at me blankly.

“You convinced Dixie Lynn to help you find young girls by threatening to give the gun with her prints on it to the cops.”

He smiled. “Yeah. That worked out pretty good. All this time she’s been afraid I’d do just that. There ain’t no statue of limitations on murder, is there?”

There’d never be a statue honoring his brain power, either.

“So, where’s the gun now?”

He smiled. “That what you’ve come for?”

I said nothing, letting him answer his own question.

“It ain’t here,” he said. “The cops already tore this place up looking for—”

I grabbed the front of his shirt and lifted him off the couch. “Take me to it.”

Turns out we didn’t have to go far, and I left with the .38 that Trevor said Dixie Lynn used to kill her stepfather. I locked it in the gun safe in my office.

* * *

I was pondering what to tell Dixie Lynn when my cellphone rang. I checked the screen, saw Alfredo Martinez’s name, and answered. After greetings and pleasantries, he said, “One of the girls we took in said she thinks she knows the young woman you’re looking for.”

Alfredo told me the girl who might have seen Elka had been living on the streets for six months before becoming a resident at his shelter, kicked out of her mother’s home when her mother’s new boyfriend seemed more interested in her than her mother.

“If it’s the same young woman,” Alfredo said, “she’s working as a bottom girl for Buddy Clarke.”

I’d never heard of Buddy Clarke, but I knew bottom girls were women who acted as mid-level management in the hierarchy between pimps and their stables. They communicated with customers, rented hotel rooms, and managed the day-to-day lives of the girls in the stable. Often, they had worked on their backs before aging out.

“How do I find him?”

Alfredo could provide only a few suggestions, based on what he knew and what the homeless children in his shelter had told him, but it was enough to put me on Interstate 35 headed north.

I stopped first at Alfredo’s shelter, and he introduced me to the girl who said she’d seen my client’s daughter. I showed her Elka’s high school graduation portrait to confirm for myself that she had seen Elka.

The girl pointed to a tiny scar beneath Elka’s left eye that I had thought was a blemish in the original print. “She’s older now, but she still has that scar.”

I asked if she knew Buddy Clarke.

She shook her head. “But I know where she shops.”


She named a strip mall with a grocery store at one end, a discount clothing store at the other, and a variety of smaller shops between them.

* * *

I had no other leads, so I planted myself in the strip mall parking lot and sat in the Texas heat monitoring grocery store visitors from open until close for the next three days. Mid-morning the fourth day I saw Elka. She was accompanied by a large, intimidating gentleman. I needed to find a way to separate the two so that I could talk to her, confirm she was the young woman I sought, and get her away from the situation.

Her escort stuck close to her most of the way through the store. When they neared the restrooms, he told to her wait. “You tell Buddy I left you alone for even a minute and you know what’ll happen.”

He didn’t wait for a response before he ducked inside.

I approached but remained a reasonable distance from the young woman. “Elka.”

She turned toward me.

I repeated her name.

“No one calls me that.” She glanced around and then lowered her voice. “Who are you?”

I told her my name. “Your mother sent me.”

“My mother?” She snorted with derision. “That bitch doesn’t care about me.”

“She does. She misses you.”

“She kicked me out. She—”

“She hired me to find you ten years ago,” I said. “I—I gave up too soon.”

“So why now?”

“Dixie Lynn Hollis was arrested.”

“She told you how to find me?”

“Not exactly, but she’s in trouble and thought I would help her if she helped me find you,” I said. “I’m here to take you home.”

“Who’ll protect me?” she asked. “Buddy will find me. He has ways.”

“We can—”

“Get away from me,” she said. “Mason’s coming back.”

“I—” I didn’t have time to say more. Mason was within earshot. “Thanks,” I told her. “I’ll try that.”

As I walked away, I heard Mason say, “What was that all about?”

I left the store and returned to my SUV. Twenty minutes later Elka and her escort finally finished shopping and loaded their purchases into the back of a white minivan. I followed as they drove away.

They didn’t go far—less than thirty minutes from the grocery store—and most of that time was spent waiting for red lights to turn green. Their destination was an unimposing, single-story white building surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire. The alley-side fence slid open as the van approached and closed again after it entered the parking area.

I watched from a comfortable distance as Elka and Mason unloaded the groceries and carried them into the building through a steel door held open by a second man. Once the groceries and all three people were inside, I moved closer, examining the windowless building from all four sides. The single door appeared to be the only way in or out, and cameras mounted at each corner allowed the occupants to monitor activity in the lot surrounding the building.

There was no way I was pulling Elka out. Not alone, and probably not with help. But there was another way to get her. Maybe.

I called Alfredo and told him I needed a second pair of eyes and another vehicle.

Alfredo left the shelter under the watchful eye of his assistants and an hour later joined me. We positioned ourselves at each end of the alley where we could watch the building, and we waited.

Shortly after eight that evening the door opened and Mason walked to the minivan. After he slid open the minivan’s side door, out trooped six young women followed by Elka. The young women squeezed into the back, and Elka settled into the front passenger seat. Alfredo and I kept a loose tail on the minivan, keeping in touch via cellphone and trading places as we went so that the driver would only spot us if he knew to look for us. In an area roughly bordered by Harry Hines Boulevard, Walnut Hill Lane, Shady Trail, and Southwell Road, Mason dropped off the young women.

After the last girl exited the minivan, Mason pulled into the drive-through lane of a fast-food restaurant. I pulled in behind him. When he rolled his window down to place his order, I ran up, reached through his window, and grabbed the back of his neck.

“I can take your order whenever you’re ready,” said a tinny female voice through the speaker.

I bounced Mason’s head off the steering wheel and shouted at Elka. “Get out! Get out now!”

She hesitated.

“I’m sorry,” said the voice. “I didn’t understand what you said. Would you please repeat your order?”

Elka opened her door. As soon as she did, Alfredo was there beside her. He pulled her out of the van, pushed her into his car, and drove away.

Mason looked at me. “You, again.”

I stepped back as Mason pushed open his door. He was too close to the speaker stand and couldn’t open it far enough to get out. By the time he realized that, I was in my SUV, driving away.

Alfredo took Elka to the shelter, and I joined them a few minutes later. Then Alfredo phoned the Dallas Police and told them of the girls we’d left behind.

After we explained who we were and that our intent was not to harm her, Elka told us what had happened during the ten years since she’d left home: how Dixie Lynn had offered her safe harbor, which turned out to be anything but; how Trevor Cash had turned her out; how she had been sent north to work for Buddy Clark; and how she had become his bottom girl. What I heard sickened me, and I knew without doubt that I had failed her. I had failed her, I had failed her mother, and I had failed every girl Dixie Lynn and Trevor Cash during the subsequent ten years.

The next morning, one of the women on Alfredo’s staff helped Elka clean up and then found her a fresh set of clothing. I returned with her to Waco.

Halfway there, Elka finally spoke. “I was so angry when I left,” she said. “I said some terrible things. I—”

“I don’t think your mother cares about any of that,” I said.

“But what about all the things I’ve done?”

“You’re still her baby girl,” I said. “She’s still your mother. Start there. You can work through everything else.”

“Yeah,” she said as she turned away and stared out the window. “Maybe.”

We didn’t speak for the rest of the drive, and soon I pounded on Anna’s front door. She jerked it open, and the look on her face let me know she wasn’t happy to see me. Then she saw her daughter standing behind me and everything changed. Anna pushed me aside, wrapped her arms around Elka, and began crying.

The moment wasn’t mine, so I left them alone.

* * *

That afternoon I removed the .38 from my gun safe. I couldn’t give it to Dixie Lynn because it would disappear, and I couldn’t give it to Templeton Walker without explaining how it had come into my possession. So, I returned it to Trevor Cash, only he didn’t realize it. Then I let Templeton know where she could find it.

After she arrested Trevor Cash and charged him with the murder of Reggie Wilson, I visited Dixie Lynn and told her what had happened.

“All this time?” she asked. “All this time I been doing what I been doing because he lied to me?”

“I think there’s more to it than that,” I told her. “I think you believed that if you turned out other girls you wouldn’t feel singled out. You wouldn’t feel special anymore. You’d believe it happened to all kinds of girls.”


“Elka Schubert remembers you,” I said, “and she’ll testify against you. She’ll tell the police, the prosecutor, and the court how you seduced her with promises of easy money and—”

Dixie Lynn interrupted. “I only gave her what she wanted, a way to escape the life she was leading.”

“What you didn’t give her was the freedom she so desired as an eighteen-year-old. You took away the little freedom she had.”

Dixie Lynn nodded. “You think I have a chance?”

“I think you’re going away for a long, long time on the trafficking charge,” I said, “but if you flip on him, Trevor will get the needle for your stepfather’s murder.”

* * *

I returned to my office, stood at my desk, and stared down at all the people going about their business on Austin Avenue. I thought about Dixie Lynn and the life she had been coerced into by the man who murdered her stepfather. I thought about Elka and Anna Schubert and how much they had to overcome before they had any hope of ever again becoming a normal family.

And I thought about what to do with dirty money.

I turned and opened my desk drawer. The sweat soaking Dixie Lynn’s money had finally dried, so I stuffed the hundreds into an envelope and mailed them to Alfredo Martinez.

Michael Bracken ( is the author of several books and more than 1,200 short stories. An Edgar Award and Shamus Award nominee, his crime fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, and many other publications. Additionally, Bracken is the editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and several anthologies, including the Anthony Award-nominated The Eyes of Texas.