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

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.

“And?”

“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.

“Why?”

“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.”

“Maybe?”

“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?”

“Freedom.”

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.”

“Who?”

“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?”

“Freezing.”

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.”

“DiamondBack’s?”

“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.”

“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.”

“I—”

“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 (www.CrimeFictionWriter.com) 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.



Monday, July 19, 2021

Disposable Women, fiction by Michael Bracken

Riverview Estates had no river and no view, and the small patch of dirt surrounding each of the West Texas mobile home park’s forty pads could not easily be mistaken for an estate. I once had it all—big house, big car, big office, and big debt to maintain the lifestyle—and I had been lucky to drive away with my Glock, my license, and the clothes on my back when Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations, where I had been vice president of investigations for one of the largest firms of its kind in Dallas, had been shuttered by authorities after the owner had been indicted for tax evasion and other accounting anomalies. With nothing better to do because affiliation with my former employer was job-search poison, I spent my mornings sitting in a folding chair in front of my six-year-old Ford F-150 in the dirt yard outside my grandmother’s mobile home at Riverview Estates drinking Lone Star and watching my neighbors queue up for their ride to work.

Many of them were illegals—Guatemalan, Honduran, Mexican, Panamanian, and others from south of the Rio Grande who came to America seeking a better life and instead wound up in West Texas working twelve-hour shifts for subsistence pay at Chicken Junction’s meat processing plant and who lived four or more to a bedroom, sleeping in shifts. The other residents of Riverview Estates complained bitterly about their new neighbors even as they were bought out and their single-family single-wides were turned into communal housing that brought the park owner greater revenue as sardine-can dormitories than renting the pads on which they were situated ever had.

An old school bus with Quarryville I.S.D. still faintly visible on the side stopped at the end of the drive to collect my neighbors and soon disappeared in a cloud of dust and diesel fumes. An hour later, the bus returned to disgorge plant employees coming off shift, including Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado.

Though she still rented space in one of the communal residences three doors down from mine, Sofia walked directly from the bus to the empty folding chair at my side and dropped into it. I handed her a beer from the cooler between the chairs and asked, “Rough night?”

As she opened it, she said, “Aren’t they all?”

We had met one evening at the Dumpsters, Sofia dropping off a trash bag before queuing up for the evening bus while I made room in my place for more empty beer cans. Then, as she did that morning, she wore steel-toed work boots, faded jeans, a man’s denim work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a blue bandanna that held her shoulder-length black hair away from her face. The evening we met, my hair was as long as hers. I had not cut it since moving into my grandmother’s mobile home, had not shaved in several days, and had not showered in two because I had stopped caring about my place in society.

Good evening,” I said that night, making polite conversation.

Sofia hesitated so long I wondered if she spoke English. Then she smiled. “It is, isn’t it?”

She walked away before I could respond, and she told me later she hesitated because I was the first norteamericano at Riverview Estates to greet her with anything other than a racial epithet or other form of verbal abuse.

By the time we finished our beer, the other bus riders had disappeared into their respective residences and the school bus had returned to the meat processing plant where it would remain until the next shift change. Sofia took my hand and led me into my grandmother’s mobile home. She removed the bandanna from her hair and let it fall unfettered to her shoulders. She smelled of offal, but that didn’t stop me. I pulled her into my arms, kissed her deeply, and began unbuttoning her denim work shirt. She pulled away and held the shirt closed with one hand. She pressed the other hand against my chest. “I need to shower first.”

I’ll be waiting.”

Though I still wore my hair long, I bathed and shaved every morning before Sofia returned from the plant. I stripped, slipped into bed, and listened to her through the thin walls as she sang an unfamiliar tune barely audible above the sound of the shower. Soon she turned off the water and I heard her moving about the bathroom. Then she stepped into the bedroom and dropped the white bath towel with which she’d covered herself.

My gaze followed the towel to the floor and then traveled back up the length of her body—long legs, slender hips, firm breasts—her skin the color of honey and speckled with water droplets. Her towel-dried but still damp black hair framed her oval face, and her hazel eyes were deep pools beneath long black lashes and thick eyebrows never plucked. She wore only a small, gold, heart-shaped locket on a thin gold chain, a gift from her mother she never removed. She joined me in the bed, and her full lips found mine.

Afterward, as she lay in my arms, we talked. That is, Sofia talked because I had little to say about my evening spent drinking beer and watching boxing with Red Barker, manager of Riverview Estates. She told me about Juanita, who dreamed of moving north to Minnesota where her brother worked as a short order cook; about Carlos, who sent nearly every penny he earned back to his parents in Xalapa; and about Skeeter, the supervisor who treated Sofia and her co-workers as if they were no better than the hundreds of cattle they butchered and processed each shift. I wasn’t paying attention because I’d heard much of it before.

Then something I’d not previously heard caught my attention.

Three women have disappeared since I started working at the plant,” Sofia said. She had worked there for three months before we met, and we had been together almost six. “Nobody knows what happened to them and nobody cares. They just got replaced.”

I mumbled something non-committal, certain that employee turnover at the meat processing plant was greater than three every ten months if the ever-changing faces queued up for the bus twice a day was any indication.

Sofia turned, snuggled against my side, and soon drifted to sleep. When I felt certain I would not wake her, I slipped out of bed, pulled the sheet over her, and dressed. After I ensured the drapes allowed no stray daylight into the room, I closed the door behind me. Some mornings we prepared breakfast together, eating eggs scrambled with chorizo and served on warm flour tortillas, but that morning I was on my own and ate stale Rice Chex downed with a fresh bottle of Lone Star.

Then I went outside, folded up the chairs, and moved the cooler against the concrete steps. As a child visiting my mother’s mother, I had roamed the rolling hills around Riverview Estates, running through the prickly pear, juniper, and mesquite while playing Army and Cowboys and Indians with the children who lived in the mobile home park. I had climbed the one live oak still clinging to the edge of the property, and I had explored the vehicles—two Ramblers and a Chrysler—abandoned in the wash.

The children I had known then had all moved on, one way or another, but their homes had not. Several, much like my grandmother’s, had been there since the park opened and were clearly showing signs of age. Only one—the park manager’s residence—was less than twenty years old. As her only grandchild, I’d inherited my grandmother’s single-wide and all the plastic-covered furniture and doily cozies inside, when she passed away several months after I’d lost my home to repossession and my debts had been discharged through bankruptcy. Her death also meant I received a small but steady income from shares in a family oil trust I inherited because my mother had preceded her into the grave.

You busy?” I turned to see Red standing behind me, holding his battered gray toolbox. “I got a problem over to the washhouse. Thought I might get you to give me a hand.”

I glanced back at my grandmother’s mobile home. Sofia would be asleep for several hours, I owed Red for snaking my sewer line a few weeks earlier, and I really had nothing better to do than keep him company. He had been manager of Riverview Estates since before the first home was drug into the park, and he had been my grandmother’s closest friend—perhaps even her lover—during the last few years of her life. I handed him a beer from the cooler, took the toolbox from his hand, and walked with him to the washhouse on the far side of the park.

Just took possession of the Swanson place,” he said as we walked. “The family wanted out from under it the moment old man Swanson died, and they took the first offer. The family already cleared out everything they want, so I just need to give it the once over before we look to fill it.”

More employees for the plant?”

Long as the plant keeps employing illegals, they’re going to need a place to sleep,” he said. “Nobody in town wants anything to do with them, so where else they going to go?”

I didn’t have an answer for Red, so I said nothing.

We had reached the washhouse by then. I helped Red pull one of the washing machines away from the wall so he could determine why it had abruptly stopped while agitating a load of Mrs. Medeiros’s unmentionables.

* * *

Even though Sofia still paid her share of the rent for one of the sardine-can dormitories, she rarely returned to it. Instead, she spent most of her time away from the meat processing plant with me in my grandmother’s mobile home. She packed away the doilies, fifty-state shot glass collection, and photo gallery of long-dead relatives, and she rearranged the furniture to take better advantage of the afternoon and early evening sun. Though we did not always have breakfast together, we never missed dinner. We ate around six, finishing just before she had to queue up for the bus ride to the plant for her eight o’clock shift.

One day, after she found my holstered Glock and my laminated private investigator’s license in my underwear drawer, she asked about it and asked why I did not work. I told her.

Did you do these bad things?”

I shook my head. “That I was an officer of the corporation is enough to taint my name. No one will hire me.”

You can start over, yes?” she asked.

Maybe someday,” I said. “Not today.”

She tilted her head to the side and examined my face. “Are you happy, Cade?”

I suppose.”

Are you happy with me?”

I realized what she was asking, so I pulled her into my arms. I stared deep into her eyes, brushed a long lock of black hair away from her face, and kissed her. “Of course,” I said between kisses. “Yes. You’re the best thing in my life.”

Then one morning, she did not return.

I watched as more than three dozen weary people filed off the bus, and I did not become concerned until the bus drove away. Sofia had never missed the bus. In English and broken Spanish I asked the few bus riders who had not yet disappeared into their homes if they had seen her. They remembered her riding with them to work the previous evening, and a few remembered clocking in with her, but none knew what happened after that.

Where is she?” I demanded. “Why didn’t she get on the bus?”

Suddenly, none of them understood me.

No hablo ingl├ęs,” they said as they shook their heads and hurried to distance themselves from me.

I walked to the mobile home Sofia ostensibly shared with seven other women, three of whom worked her same shift. I knocked on the door until one of them finally opened it as far as a safety chain would allow. “Where’s Sofia?”

She backed away from the door, and I heard them consulting with one another before a different woman came to stare at me through the gap. “Sofia’s not here.”

I know that,” I said. “She wasn’t on the bus this morning. Where is she?”

You aren’t the only gringo who likes Mexican girls. Maybe you do not satisfy her, Mr. Wilcox. Maybe she found someone else.”

The women behind her giggled as she closed the door.

As I returned to my grandmother’s home, I pulled my cellphone from my pocket. I called the meat processing plant and asked the woman who answered if I could speak to Sophia Maria Montoya Delgado.

She said, “I’m sorry, sir, employees are not allowed to take personal calls on company time.”

Sofia’s off shift,” I said. “She would have clocked out at eight.”

Then she’s already gone home.”

Well, she isn’t home,” I said, my voice rising in frustration. “I want to know if she’s still there.”

Employees are not allowed to remain on the property after they clock out,” said the woman. “Therefore, she’s not here.”

What happens to employees who miss the bus?”

Sir, if Ms. Delgado missed the bus, then she likely is in for a long walk home,” she said. “Thank you for calling.”

She disconnected the call before I could ask another question.

I went inside, took my truck keys from the kitchen drawer, and then moved the folding chairs and cooler out of the way. Soon I was driving toward the meat processing plant. I took the most direct route, a road that skirted the northwest corner of Chicken Junction, and I drove all the way to the plant’s main gate without seeing anyone walking along the side of the road. The guard stationed at the gate was even less helpful than the woman on the phone.

I returned home, driving slower than before so that I could look down each intersecting road and stopping at the one convenience store along the route to see if Sofia had, perhaps, stopped there. She hadn’t.

After parking my pickup in its spot beside my grandmother’s mobile home, I climbed out and checked the cooler beside the porch. The beer inside was still cold, so I opened one and sat on the concrete steps.

Something wrong?” Red asked from behind me. When I turned, he continued. “You tore out of here like a bat out of hell.”

Sofia didn’t come home this morning.”

He helped himself to a beer from the cooler and sat on the step beside me. “That’s what got you all het up?”

She’s never missed the bus.”

First time for everything.”

One of the women she lives with implied that she’d gone off with someone else.”

You think that’s a possibility?”

I shook my head.

Then it’s likely you’ll hear from her soon.” Red slapped my knee. “In the meantime, I got something to take your mind off your worries. There’s a problem with the plumbing at the Swanson place and fixing it’s more than a two-handed job.”

I stared at the Riverview Estates entrance and the road beyond, and saw no one approaching from either direction. I finished my beer and stood. “Let’s get your toolbox.”

* * *

Old Man Swanson’s mobile home had more than a plumbing problem, and Red kept me busy all day helping him prepare it for rental. I returned home near dinnertime, showered, and stood in the kitchen wearing nothing but my boxer briefs and an undershirt while I stood before the open refrigerator. I had not eaten dinner alone in more than five months, and I did not know what I should prepare.

I finally settled on corn tortillas wrapped around leftover carnitas Sofia had prepared the previous weekend. As I sat at the kitchen table eating, I watched the door, expecting her to rush in at any moment. She had less than an hour before she had to queue up for the bus, and she had never missed work.

After I finished eating, I sat at the table nursing a Lone Star until I heard the bus come and go. I nursed another beer and waited until eight-thirty before I called the meat processing plant. A different woman answered, and I asked, “Is Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado working this evening?”

I’m sorry, sir, we can’t put calls through to employees.”

I’m not asking to talk to her,” I said. “I just need to know if she’s clocked in for her shift.”

I’m sorry,” she said again. “I can’t provide that information.”

You can’t or you won’t?”

Thank you for calling,” the woman replied. Then she disconnected the call.

I left my phone on the kitchen table, walked to the bedroom, and went through Sofia’s things. She did not have much. At one end of the closet hung a pair of jeans, a pair of black dress slacks, four men’s denim work shirts, two frilly white blouses, and a lightweight jacket. I checked all of the pockets and found them empty. At the bottom of the closet were a pair of sandals and a pair of low-heeled black pumps. In her one dresser drawer were a white soft-cup bra, a half-dozen pairs of white cotton underwear, four pairs of heavy woolen boot socks, and four blue bandannas. In the bathroom, in addition to her toiletries, I found her make-up bag filled with assorted eye shadows and lipsticks, and a small jewelry box containing five pairs of earrings, three necklaces, two bracelets, and two keys—a door key and a padlock key. Anything else Sofia owned would be in the mobile home three doors down, and the roommates she no longer stayed with were unlikely to let me in to examine her things.

I spent a restless night. Though I did not often sleep with Sofia due to our opposing schedules, I missed her lingering presence in our bed, the way she left the covers cast aside when she arose late each afternoon, the peculiar arrangement of the down pillows that she often wrapped around her head, and the faint scent of her perfume and her sweat that clung to the bed linens.

The next morning I waited until my neighbors boarded the bus at seventy-thirty on their way to the plant for the eight o’clock shift. The employees who clocked out at eight would not return until eight-thirty, so I had one uninterrupted hour to visit the mobile home three doors down. I used the door key I’d found in Sofia’s jewelry box to let myself in. The sparsely furnished living room contained a couch, a recliner, and a console television, all of which appeared to have belonged to the previous owner. The kitchen table and matching chairs were made of chrome and yellow Formica. I passed through both rooms and down the hall to the bedrooms. Each bedroom contained two twin beds and four padlocked footlockers, none of them labeled. I tried the padlock key on each footlocker in turn, finally opening the fifth one.

Inside I found more clothing and a bundle of letters written in Spanish. A quick glance revealed they had all come from the same woman in Puerto Vallarta, and my limited ability to read Spanish—which allowed me to order from the menu at Taco Bell and little else—led me to believe that woman was her mother.

I put everything back as I had found it and slipped out.

Red caught me closing the door as I stepped onto the concrete steps. “Sofia ain’t back yet?”

I shook my head. “She didn’t run off, though. She left her things behind.”

I thought she’d moved in with you,” Red said, nodding toward the mobile home I had just exited.

Not quite,” I said. “She left a few things here.”

By then, more than twenty-four hours had passed since Sofia was due to return home and more than thirty-six hours had passed since I had last seen her.

I drove into town, past the locally owned businesses lining Main Street, past the town’s only bank, and past the limestone castle that was home to the meat processing plant’s owner. I found the police department occupying half of a building that also contained the city’s administrative offices. To the officer behind the counter, a man near as old as Red, I said,    “I’d like to report a missing person.”

He looked me over, taking in my long hair, black T-shirt, and blue jeans before he pulled a form from a stack of forms. “Who?”

Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado.”

When did you last see her?”

Getting on the bus to work yesterday morning.”

And where was that?”

Riverview Estates.”

He put down his pen. “Are you trying to report a missing wetback?”

I had not heard anyone use that term in years. When I didn’t respond in the negative, he glared at me and tore the form in half. “They ain’t missing if they ain’t supposed to be here in the first place.”

* * *

I returned to the meat processing plant and was refused entrance by the same guard who had turned me away the previous day. I visited the town’s emergency care clinic, Catholic church, and several other places known to serve Chicken Junction’s growing Hispanic community, finding few people who admitted to knowing Sofia and none who had seen her since our Saturday visit to the grocery store and to Dairy Queen. I drove the bus route between Riverview Estates and the plant, and then I drove alternate routes, exploring possible shortcuts someone on foot might have taken.

Tired and frustrated by the time I returned home early that evening, I stood at the bus stop and questioned every one of the night-shifters when they queued up for their ride to work. They could not escape my attention but my badgering gained me little information. They all remembered riding to work with Sofia two evenings earlier, the same few remembered clocking in with her, and one remembered walking with her until Skeeter Henderson pulled Sofia aside. None remembered seeing her since then, not on the line nor during dinner break nor at the bus stop for the trip home at the end of their shift.

I even tried to question the bus driver, but he would have none of it. Red saw what was happening, and when I started to climb into the bus after all the plant’s employees had boarded, he grabbed my arm and pulled me back. “Let these people get to work.”

But—”

The bus driver snapped the door shut.

These people won’t tell you anything if they think you’re going to cause problems for them,” Red told me.

The bus roared away, leaving behind a cloud of dust and diesel fumes.

Red still had a firm grip on my arm, and he pulled me out of the noxious cloud toward his mobile home. Once inside, he calmed me down with a cold beer, and I told him about my experience at the police station.

You’re not likely to get any cooperation from the locals. Most of them resent people like your Sofia,” he said. “And you for sure won’t get any cooperation from her people, either, if you treat them like you did a few minutes ago.”

So, what do I do?”

You find another approach,” he said. “Have you talked to her supervisor?”

I shook my head. Until a few minutes earlier, I had known him only as Skeeter. “Do you have a telephone directory?”

He did, and I flipped it open. The listing for people with the last name of Henderson was two pages long, and it didn’t include anyone who had given up their landline. None of them were named Skeeter.

I no longer had access to the databases I had used as vice president of Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations, but I still had connections. I called Studebaker Johnson, a private investigator working out of Waco to whom I had subcontracted work a half-dozen times over the years. He answered on the third ring. After a few minutes spent reminiscing about the past and glossing over the downward spiral that had taken me from Dallas to Riverview Estates. I told him I was looking for any man named Henderson, nicknamed Skeeter, first name unknown, who resided within an hour’s drive of Chicken Junction.

Stu called back a few minutes later. “I have one—Samuel ‘Skeeter’ Henderson on Huaco Road.”

He gave me Skeeter’s street address and a quick bio. “The subject is a forty-two-year-old Caucasian male, six feet tall, two hundred and forty pounds. He’s a single, never married, high school graduate who rents his home, has one DWI conviction, and his credit cards are maxed out. He has a concealed carry permit.”

The DWI—?”

“—was eight years ago, too far back to cause problems getting the permit.”

I thanked Stu.

Anytime, Cade,” he said.

Red had been listening to me, and when I ended the conversation with Stu, he asked, “What are you going to do now?”

I’m going to take a look at Skeeter’s place while he’s at work.”

I finished my beer, used Google Maps to pinpoint the location of Skeeter’s rental home, and then drove through town, past the limestone castle, and several miles out Huaco Road to a string of aluminum-sided ranch houses that were in no better condition than the mobile homes at Riverview Estates. I parked on a side road and approached Skeeter’s home from the back. The wooden doors of the detached single-car garage stood open, revealing a disorganized collection of junk that prevented the garage’s use for its intended purpose. The inside of the house, what I could see of it through the windows, was in no better condition. Most importantly, no dogs announced my presence.

After I returned home, I cleaned and loaded my Glock, and then spent another restless night missing Sofia. I had been aggressively single while working at Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations, never certain if the women I dated were interested in me or if they were interested in my money and the status of my position. I hadn’t cared, because I used them just as I thought they used me, exchanging one salad-eating, Pilates-addicted bottle-blonde for the next until I could no longer remember their names and called them all “Honey” and “Sweetie” and “Babe” as if I were using terms of endearment and not displaying my own disinterest in their individual personalities.

Sofia had changed all that.

After meeting at the Dumpster, we found other ways to accidentally cross paths until I finally stopped drinking alone every morning and took a cooler full of beer and pair of folding chairs into the front yard so that I could wave to Sofia when she stepped off the bus. She returned my wave, greeting me some days with “Buenos dias” and other days with “Good morning” until one day she broke away from her roommates and came to sit in the chair beside mine. We talked for several minutes before she excused herself and went home to sleep.

This continued for almost two weeks. Then one evening she appeared at my door dressed for work and carrying a grocery sack filled with food. She said, “You’re not eating.”

She pushed past me into the kitchen and began going through the cabinets until she had what she needed to prepare chiles rellenos with rice and beans. She had to rush to make it to the bus on time, leaving me to clean up afterward.

We had dinner together every evening after that, and before long, we were as good as living together. I still did not know what she had seen in me, but she made me want to be a better person. She taught me to stop dwelling in the past and to live for the future, whatever it might bring.

I woke early the next morning, slipped my private investigator’s license and concealed carry permit into my wallet, strapped on my shoulder holster, and then pulled on a leather vest to cover it. Nervous because I had not done any investigating more confrontational than a sharply worded email following my promotion to vice president, I used the toilet a third time.

When I flushed, wastewater backed up into the tub. I didn’t have time to deal with it, so I left it and headed outside. I was unlocking my truck when Red caught my attention.

Going to talk to Skeeter this morning?”

I told him I was. Then I told him about the wastewater in my tub.

I’ll take a look at it a little later,” he said. Then he winked. “Right now, I’m on my way to breakfast with Mrs. Medeiros.”

I left him, drove through a town that had yet to fully awaken, and out Huaco Road again. I parked on the same side road and again approached Skeeter’s home from the back. I was sitting in his kitchen when he arrived home around eight-thirty, surprising him with my presence.

Who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my house?” he demanded as he reached behind his back.

I raised the Glock from my lap. “Two fingers,” I said, motioning toward a chair I had placed on the far side of the room. “Remove your sidearm with two fingers, place it gently on the floor, and kick it in my direction. Then take a seat in that chair.”

Skeeter hesitated, perhaps considering his options, and then did what I asked. After a Glock that was a kissing cousin of the one in my hand slid across the floor toward me, he sat. Sunlight from the window shone brightly on the side of his face, revealing a thin scar on his right cheek. The scar brought back a memory long forgotten and I asked about it.

You break into my house, point a gun at me, and that’s what you ask?” He waited for me to respond. When I didn’t, he continued. “When I was ten, me and another kid were playing in some abandoned cars in the wash behind the mobile home park where I lived. I fell, cut my face on a Chrysler. My mother rushed me to the doctor. Thought I was going to lose my eye, but I didn’t. The kid wasn’t from around here and he disappeared before I came home from the hospital.”

You’re Little Sammy?”

His eyes narrowed. “Do I know you?” he asked. “Nobody’s called me that in years. These days, my friends call me Skeeter.”

I didn’t correct him, but I was the kid he’d been with, and we hadn’t been playing. He had been bullying me, and I had pushed him onto the Chrysler. “Okay, Skeeter, I want to know what happened to Sofia Maria Montoya Delgado. She didn’t come home from work a couple of days ago, and you’re the last person anyone saw her talking to.”

So, you’re the guy who’s been calling the plant and asking about her all over town?”

Word traveled fast. I nodded.

I sent her upstairs,” Skeeter said. “She didn’t return to finish her shift, and I haven’t seen her since.”

Why’d you send her upstairs? What’s upstairs?”

She was a looker, that one. Little heavy on the eyebrows, if you ask me, but an ass to make a grown man cry. That’s what the boss likes.”

What do you mean?”

Every three months or so, he lets the shift supervisors know he needs a new assistant.”

What’re you supposed to do?”

Pick out the lookers, send their names upstairs. If he calls one of ours up, there’s a five-hundred-dollar cash bonus slipped into our locker. Sofia’s my second. The first one was almost two years ago.”

Sofia had mentioned three women missing during the ten months she’d been working at the plant, but Skeeter was telling me there might have been others, at least four a year since— “How long has this been going on?”

I’ve been a supervisor almost eight years,” Skeeter said. “It started before I was ever promoted.”

What happens to the women after they get sent upstairs?”

Skeeter shrugged. “Employees—especially the illegals—come and go all the time. Some quit without notice and never bother picking up their last paychecks, so I never asked.”

Aren’t you curious?”

Curiosity kills,” Skeeter said. “This is a company town. Everybody relies on the plant one way or another, so you go along to get along. Nobody cares about a few illegals. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it’s always been.”

I stared hard at Skeeter for a full minute, but I had no more questions to ask and he had nothing to add. I picked up the Glock he had kicked across the floor to me. “I’m taking this with me,” I said, “but I’ll leave it someplace where you can find it later.”

* * *

Chicken Junction was awake when I drove back through town, and I realized how insular the town really was. Other than the Dairy Queen and a few service stations, no other national businesses had established a foothold. Walmart, H-E-B, and Whataburger, all nearly as ubiquitous in Texas as Dairy Queen, had no local presence. I was out the other side of town and almost home when I was passed by a fire engine with lights flashing and sirens blaring.

I caught up to it when I reached Riverview Estates and saw my grandmother’s mobile home ablaze. The park entrance was crowded with the fire engine, two police vehicles, and two pick-up trucks belonging to neighbors who had been unable to get through to their homes. I parked on the roadside just beyond the entrance and walked in. The neighbor on one side of my grandmother’s blazing mobile home was spraying his with a garden hose, and several dozen park residents, clumped together by primary language were milling about watching the firefighters unspool hoses too late to save my home. While the firefighters brought the blaze under control and local police kept the spectators well back from the scene, I searched for Red.

None of my neighbors had seen him.

Then one of the firefighters came out of the charred and half-melted aluminum husk of my grandmother’s home and announced to the others, “We got a body.”

I saw one of the police officers smile, but it was fleeting and I doubt anyone else noticed. I edged closer, remaining as inconspicuous as possible until I was close enough to the officer to overhear his conversation when he used his cellphone. He said, “It’s done. He won’t be asking any more questions.”

A moment later he added, “Of course it was him. Who else could have been in there?”

I backed away, knowing Red had been snaking the sewer line inside my grandmother’s mobile home when it went up in flames. As soon as I reached my truck, I drove away, leaving Riverview Estates and Chicken Junction in my rearview mirror. I didn’t stop until I reached Quarryville, and I sat at a picnic table outside a smokehouse that had once been a Conoco station, picking at a lunch plate of chopped brisket and potato salad.

When Evan Goodnight Security & Investigations closed, my house repossessed, and most of my possessions lost prior to bankruptcy proceedings that cleaned out the last of my savings and investments, I thought I’d lost everything. I was wrong. What I lost were possessions. Replaceable things. People were not replaceable.

I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. Not then. Not there.

After finishing lunch, I looked for a place to hole up, and a horse-faced woman rented me the far-end unit at Quarryville’s six-room motel. The room was nothing special and had last been decorated in the 1960s. Unsure if the primary color was orange or tangerine, I avoided looking at it by staring out the window at the only vehicle in the parking lot. Mine.

After a few minutes, I called Stu Johnson.

You must be working again,” he said.

This is something personal,” I told Stu. Then I told him what information I needed.

I’ll see what I can get.”

While waiting for his return call, I explored Quarryville. There wasn’t much to the town, but I did find a pawnshop, where I purchased a thin pair of leather gloves and an inexpensive gun cleaning kit. Back in the motel room, I stripped, cleaned, and reloaded the Glock I had taken from Skeeter. I had just finished when my phone rang.

What do you have for me, Stu?”

Just like you figured,” he said. “Directly or indirectly, the Potter family owns that town. A family trust owns the meat processing plant, the bank, and the mortgage company. Through various subsidiaries it controls most of the rental property in and around town, as well as two of the largest cattle ranches supplying beef to the plant. The patriarch, H. F. Potter, just turned ninety and no longer takes an active role in decision-making, as best I can tell. His son Crawford runs things and has for many years. Crawford had some problems when he was younger, transferred twice from prestigious Texas universities, and finally graduated from a diploma mill. The family spent good money to make Crawford’s problems disappear, but the Potters weren’t the big fish in a little pond at Rice and Baylor like they are in Chicken Junction.”

So what happened?”

I might be able to get specifics if I had more time,” Stu said, “but there were allegedly several incidents involving inappropriate conduct with co-eds.”

What are we talking about? Stalking? Assault? Rape?”

Yes. Probably. Campus police didn’t get involved back in the day unless things were seriously out of hand. Hell, most rapes went unreported, and the few that were, were blamed on the women. Men like that don’t change, especially men who feel empowered by money and social position.”

They became the kind of men who trolled their workforce for new assistants.

Crawford is a fifty-five-year-old Caucasian male, five feet seven inches tall, weighing in at a buck ninety. He’s never married. Other than allegations of inappropriate behavior from his college days, there are no blemishes on his record.”

That’s what happens when you own the police force.”

Do you want me to dig deeper?”

I think that’s enough on him,” I said. “What did you find out about the castle?”

I’m not certain it qualifies as a castle.”

Have you seen it?”

Only pictures. The two-story, eight-bedroom Potter Mansion, designed in the Romanesque Revival style, was the first limestone building in the county when it was constructed in 1871. The home has been renovated several times since, but there is no record of any significant changes to the original floor plans. I’m emailing them to you as we speak.”

That it?”

There’s one other thing,” Stu said. “Have you surveilled the house?”

Not yet.”

I gave it the once over on Google Street View. There are bars on one of the bedroom windows. What’s in that room that’s so important people need to be kept out?”

Or kept in,” I said. “Which bedroom?”

Second floor, northwest corner.”

I thanked him for all the information and ended the call. Then I settled in to wait until nightfall.

* * *

I drove several times around the Potter Mansion, saw no security of any kind because a man who thinks he controls everything doesn’t think he needs it. Crawford’s arrogance would be his undoing, and I decided to take the direct approach. I parked at the curb, walked up to the porch, rang the bell, and waited until a man fitting Crawford Potter’s description answered. “You Mr. Potter?”

Who are you?”

I’m a dead man walking.” I revealed Skeeter’s Glock, showed Crawford the business end, and pushed past him.

You must be Mr. Wilcox,” he said. He remained poised as if he thought he was in control of the situation. Maybe he was. “I think someone’s going to get fired for this.”

Take me upstairs, to the bedroom in the northwest corner.”

If you insist.” He led me up the sweeping staircase and to the bedroom. A combination lock secured the door.

I motioned with the gun. “Open it.”

I think you’ll be disappointed,” Crawford said, but he spun the dial on the combination lock until it unlocked. Then he unhooked the lock and pushed the door open.

You first.”

He stepped into the room and switched on the light.

No one rushed into my arms, screamed for help, or greeted me in any way, because there was no one in the room. Except for the lock on the door and the bars on the windows, nothing seemed out of place until I saw the marks on each of the canopy bed posts where restraints of some kind had worn groves into the polished wood.

What were you expecting, Mr. Wilcox? A harem of Mexican girls?”

A glint of reflected light caught my eye, and I saw Sofia’s locket under the edge of the bed, the chain broken.

I returned my attention to Crawford. “Where’s Sofia?”

Your Sofia was a good-looking woman, a real firecracker in bed.” Crawford’s eyes twinkled and his mouth twisted into a grin I may never forget. “Did you really think she’d still be here after you started asking questions?”

Where is she?” I repeated.

The smile twisted further. “Do you have any idea how much meat gets processed at the plant? Do you think anyone notices a little extra now and then?”

My stomach turned over, and I shot him. I didn’t think twice, just squeezed the trigger until the clip was empty. Then I dropped Skeeter’s Glock, picked up the locket, and hurried toward the stairs.

Crawford?” I heard an old man yelling. Crawford’s ninety-year-old father was somewhere in the house. “Crawford, what’s all that noise?”

I drew my Glock from the shoulder holster, thinking his father may have phoned the police, and it led the way down the stairs and across the foyer.

Crawford, answer me!”

I eased out the front door, pulled it closed behind me, and was in my truck rolling out of town before the first patrol car responded.

I drove from the Potter Mansion to Riverview Estates. I used Sofia’s key to enter the mobile home she had shared with seven other illegal immigrants, none of whom were as beautiful as her. The four day shifters present when I bulled my way in all woke and began screaming at me in Spanish. I couldn’t understand exactly what they were calling me, but I understood the attitude. I ignored them, marched down the hall, and opened Sofia’s locker. I grabbed the letters from her mother, returned to my truck, and headed toward El Paso, intending to cross into Juarez.

As I drove, I phoned Studebaker Johnson. I didn’t tell him what I had done, but I did tell him what I had learned. Texas Rangers, Immigration, the FBI, the USDA, and other state and national agencies would all be interested, and I knew he could use his connections to direct their attention to the meatpacking plant and the surrounding town.

When I finished, I told Stu he might never hear from me again, and he wished me good luck. When we finished, I turned my phone off and threw it out the window so I could not be tracked.

I had a long drive ahead of me, all the way to Puerto Vallarta. I had to return the locket and tell Mrs. Delgado that her daughter was too beautiful to live.

I wouldn’t cry until I did.


Michael Bracken (www.CrimeFictionWriter.com) is the author of several books and more than 1,200 short stories. His crime fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories, and many other publications. Additionally, Bracken is the editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and he has edited several anthologies, including the Anthony Award-nominated The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods.