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

Monday, April 20, 2020

Dirty Laundry, fiction by Michael Bracken

Julia Calloway Poe sat at a table outside Starbucks and stared at her cellphone, much like the coffee drinkers occupying the surrounding tables. Her shoulder-length auburn hair had that just-rolled-out-of-bed look that takes hours to get just right, and lightly applied make-up failed to mask the spray of freckles beneath her emerald green eyes. Over an hour-glass figure she wore a form-fitting black-and-white striped T-shirt, fashionably torn jeans purchased at some chic boutique, and black platform pumps. Except for the nervous tic in her left eye, she could have been any one of the hundreds of interchangeable Baylor graduates gentrifying Waco.

I dropped into the empty seat opposite her. When Julia looked up, I handed her one of my business cards. Neatly thermographed on the front were my name—Morris Ronald Boyette—and my contact information. She glanced at the card before tucking it under the corner of her venti cup and turning her cellphone face down. “You’re late.”

Magnoliatards—out-of-towers flooding Waco as a result of a popular television program about Waco-based home renovators—had bottlenecked traffic downtown, and as I’d left my office, I’d nearly run down a young couple who thought traffic lights and crosswalks were suggestions. The resulting exchange of hand gestures had delayed me significantly, and I wasn’t in the mood to play. “If you’ve somewhere more important to be,” I said, “then why are you still here?”

Julia stiffened and her eyes narrowed as she examined my face. She flicked the corner of my business card with the tip of one blood-red fingernail. After several seconds, she expelled her breath and said, “Fine. We’ll do this your way.”

She reached into her purse, removed a check already folded in half, and slid it across the table. I disappeared it into my jacket pocket.

“Aren’t you going to look at it?”

The check was either sufficiently large, or it wasn’t. I said, “Schrödinger’s cat.”

She nodded. I was surprised she caught the reference.

Before I could ask how she wanted me to earn the money, Julia said, “My brother and his wife were murdered in El Paso.”

“And you want me to find their killer?”

“No, the police have already arrested someone,” she said. “This is about my niece.”

Waco has its share of quiet coffee shops in gentrifying neighborhoods, but my client had chosen the Starbucks at the intersection of Bosque Boulevard and Wooded Acres Drive—busy, multi-lane thoroughfares lined with fast-food joints and big box stores. The traffic lights changed several times while I waited for her to continue.

“Caroline is four,” Julia finally said.

“Where is she now?”

“With her grandparents—her mother’s parents—and I haven’t been allowed to see her.”

I asked a few questions. Julia provided a few answers. Her older brother Austin had been the first to attend Baylor, had graduated the same semester she completed her freshman year, and had immediately found employment with a local bank. He married the bank president’s daughter the following year. Whether through hard work or familial connections, Austin rose quickly through the ranks to vice president of commercial lending, and his clients had been instrumental in transforming downtown Waco from a ghost town into a tourist destination. His wife Holly, who had never worked at a paying job, was active on the boards of several charitable organizations.

Julia, on the other hand, remained single despite her brother’s best efforts. She supported herself as a librarian in Hewitt, a small community that shared a common border with Waco, and she supplemented her income with a modest monthly check from the trust fund her parents established before their deaths.

Reciting her family history loosened Julia’s tongue, but didn’t explain why her dead brother’s in-laws wouldn’t let her see her niece. When she paused long enough to sip from her venti cup, I asked.

“They want to adopt Caroline,” she said. “They already have some high-priced attorney working on it.”


“David and Donna Exter.”

David Alexrod Exter IV was the most recent Exter to serve as president of Huaco Bank & Trust, founded by his family in the late 1800s to serve the financial needs of the cotton plantations that fueled the area’s earliest economic boom. Unlike competitors, they had never opened branches in the suburbs, relying on old money and business accounts rather than chasing paycheck-to-paycheck working-family accounts.

“They’re living in high cotton,” I said. “They should be able to care for all her needs.”

“I’m sure they can,” Julia said, “but that’s no reason to cut me out of Caroline’s life.”

“What do you think I can do for you that a good family law attorney can’t?”

“I think I would be a better parent for my niece, but I haven’t the money to fight the
Exters in court—if I could find an attorney willing to do battle with them. For now, I just need leverage. I need something I can hold over their heads so they won’t cut me completely out of Caroline’s life.” Julia reached across the table, rested her hand on my wrist, and stared into my eyes. “Find me that something.”

With most any other woman, I would have thought her touch was a veiled come-on, but a careful examination of the look in her eyes revealed that it was an appeal to my masculine desire to ride a white horse to the rescue of a damsel in distress. She offered nothing in return but her deep appreciation and, I hoped, a check that would clear the bank.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“That’s all I ask.”

She drew back her hand, collected my business card and her phone from the table, and opened her purse to store them away. When she did, I glimpsed the grip of a .25 ACP Baby Browning Pistol.

“Do you know how to use that?”

“My brother gave it to me,” she said, not quite answering my question.


“She was packing heat?” Millie asked. Millard Wayne Trout—“Millie” because his family still called his grandfather “Millard”—operated Millie’s Tattoos and Piercings, and with every part of his body but his face and his hands covered with tattoos, served as his own walking billboard. We were sitting in his place eating Lip Locker double-meat cheeseburgers and Oriental fries from Kitok while Alice Frizell, a wisp of a tattoo artist he’d hired several years earlier, etched a starburst around the belly button of a college-age blonde.

My office was in the room behind Millie’s. Across the hall from Millie’s, in front of an empty office that had once housed a finance company too legitimate for the neighborhood, was Big Mac’s Bail Bonds. All of us had been given sixty days to relocate before our building was demolished to make room for new construction, a project financed by Huaco Bank & Trust.

“Remind me again why a librarian needs a handgun.”

“Said her brother insisted.”

Millie grunted around a mouthful of cheeseburger and listened as I told him why Julia Calloway Poe had hired me. When I finished, he said, “She wants you to get something on the Exters. What does she think you’ll find?”

I had no idea, but I had sorted through enough metaphorical hampers over the years to know that everybody had dirty laundry. Finding out just how much and just how dirty the Exters’ laundry was would keep me occupied until my client’s advance ran out. “I thought I would pay a visit to the house first, see if I can catch a glimpse of the little girl at the center of this mess.”


I waited until banker’s hours the next day, when I was certain David Exter would be in his office and his wife would be home with their granddaughter. Only she wasn’t. I knocked on the door of their Tudor Revival on Austin Avenue and soon found myself facing a diminutive Hispanic woman in black slacks and crisp white blouse who explained that the lady of the house was away.

“Will she be home soon?”

“She didn’t say.”

I folded a hundred-dollar bill around my business card and held it out to her. “Will you call me when she returns?”

She hesitated a moment and then made the money and my card disappear into one of her pockets. “Don’t hold your breath. Mrs. Exter packed several suitcases and took the Escalade. Mr. Cheese drove.”

“Where would she—?”

I didn’t finish my question because the door closed in my face was unlikely to answer.


I headed downtown and parked on the street in front of Big Mac’s Bail Bonds. Lester motioned to me through the plate-glass window, so I joined him inside. He had taken over the business decades years earlier when a disgruntled client emptied a shotgun in Macdonald Pearson’s face, and he was looking worse for wear every time I saw him.

As soon as I stepped through the door, Lester showed me an eviction letter that duplicated the one I’d received a few days earlier. “I’m too old for this shit,” he said. “Quimby’s made an offer, so I’m selling out at the end of the month. I’m not writing any new bonds, and Quimby has his own muscle, so—”

Lester let the sentence hang, but I knew how it ended. He wouldn’t have any more work for me, and we both knew there were lean months where the only thing that kept me in business was collecting one of his bail-jumping clients.

I thanked him, shook his hand, and wished him good luck in retirement.

As I stepped out of the side door into the hallway that led back to my office, he offered, “If there’s ever anything you need.”

I stopped and turned back. “You ever do any work for the Exter family?”

He snorted. “Family like that don’t need a bail bondsman. Any problem they ever had they could pay their way out of.”

“You ever heard anything?”

“Only what I read in the paper.”

Waco only had the one—and it was shrinking—so Lester read the same paper I read.

“Of course,” he continued, pausing a moment as if considering whether to share the thought that crossed his mind. “I know a guy was fresh out of the academy when he stopped Mrs. Exter about three a.m. She’d been driving down the middle of Austin Avenue, weaving from curb to curb. He was planning to issue a DWI when she blew a one-point-six—that’s a class A misdemeanor—but he was talked out of it when a commander happened by. The next morning he found an envelope stuffed with hundreds slipped under his apartment door. He works private security now."


Later that afternoon, David Exter pushed open my office door, stepped inside, and flipped one of my business cards onto my desk. I didn’t get up.

“Maria gave me your card.” Exter wore a bespoke blue pinstripe suit over a red silk tie and a crisp white shirt. Silver threaded his hair at the temples. The only thing out of place was him in my office. “She said you stopped by the house and asked about my wife.”

“I did.”

“What did you want to see her about?”

“Actually, I was looking for your granddaughter.”

Exter’s gaze traveled around my office before once again settling on me. There was barely enough room for me and him and his appraising gaze. “Julia hire you?”
I didn’t respond, but I didn’t need to.

“She’s a fine young woman,” Exter said, “but she has no idea what she’s getting herself into.”

“Julia just wants to see her niece.”

“She’s better off not,” he said. “She can’t take care of the girl.”

“How hard can it be?” I meant it as a rhetorical question, but I really had no idea. My wife had disappeared with my son when he was near Caroline’s age.

Exter reached into his jacket and removed a leather breast-pocket wallet. As he opened it and began removing crisp one-hundred-dollar bills, he asked, “How much will it take to convince you to stop whatever foolishness Julia’s hired you for?”

My client’s retainer check had done little more than make my house payment and pay for the Lip Lockers and Oriental fries I’d shared with Millie the previous day. So, enough for a security deposit and first- and last-month’s rent on a new office would certainly tempt me. I pushed back my chair and stood. “I’d rather you leave.”
Exter slid the crisp bills back into his wallet and drew out a hundred-dollar bill that had been creased twice shortways. When he dropped it next to my business card, I remembered where I had last seen it. He said, “Don’t expect any calls from Maria. ICE picked her up an hour ago.”

With that, the banker vacated my office. I followed as far as the hall—a distance of three steps—and watched as he strode down the hall. Millie stepped out of his tattoo shop, saw Exter’s back as the outside door swung shut, and he turned to me. “What did he want?”

“To buy me off,” I said, “or to threaten me.”


I caught my client coming out of the Hewitt Public Library at the end of her workday. She wore a loose-fitting beige blouse, coffee-colored straight-leg slacks, and matching-colored flats, all of which masked the hourglass figure on display when we’d first met. Her hair, pulled back in a simple ponytail, completed the look. Even though I had not called ahead, she did not seem surprised to see me. She seemed hopeful. I was leaning against my car, and Julia stopped a few feet from me. “You have something already?”

“Mrs. Exter has taken your niece out of town, and Mr. Exter has suggested I cease my inquiries.”

The hopeful expression slid from her face. “I expected as much. The two attorneys I tried to hire returned my retainer after speaking with him. They claimed conflict of interest.” She held out her hand. “You here to return yours?”

“I can’t,” I told her. “I already spent it.”

She lowered her hand.

“Is there someplace we can talk?”

She rented a one-bedroom flat in the Brookside Apartments just off of Hewitt Drive, only a few miles from the library, and I followed her there. Once inside, she poured tall glasses of peach tea while I circumnavigated the kitchen/dining/living room. The room was sparsely but tastefully furnished, and a digital picture frame graced one end table, the photographs changing every ten seconds. After Julia handed me one of the tea glasses, she stood next to me and identified her parents, herself and her brother as children, her brother and his wife, and her niece. She had no photos of the Exters, but I hadn’t expected any.

My client paused the rotation and tapped a finger against the photograph on the screen. Her brother and sister-in-law were holding Caroline, but Austin was not looking at the camera. His attention was focused on something or someone over the left shoulder of the photographer.

“I took this the weekend before they went to El Paso.”

“Looks like your brother was preoccupied.”

“I think he was in over his head.”

I turned to Julia. “Excuse me?”

“Austin told me he didn’t want to go.” She restarted the photograph rotation. “He said his father-in-law insisted.”

“What was he supposed to do there?”

“Meet with one of the bank’s clients.”

“In El Paso? Why would someone from El Paso bank in Waco?”

Julia shrugged.

“Is this the same conversation where your brother gave you the gun?”

“No,” she said. “He did that a year ago, about the same time he stopped introducing me to his unmarried business associates. He said he wasn’t a good judge of character and that I would be better off finding my own dates.”

“And are you?”

“I’m still single, Mr. Boyette, so what do you think?”

I had no appropriate response, so I sipped from my tea glass.


I hadn’t bothered to ask about the murder of Austin and Holly Exter because Julia had not hired me to look into the circumstances of their death, but on the drive back to my office I became curious. Once seated at my Macintosh, I did a quick internet search and found several articles about their murder, none of the information of much value. According to local news media, Austin and Holly’s deaths were the result of a robbery gone wrong, and the Mexican national El Paso police arrested had her wedding ring set and his Rolex watch in his pocket. I’d worked enough cases over the years to know the police had held something back, but I had never worked a case in El Paso and knew no one there.

I made a few calls and found a former client who owed me a favor who was in turn owed a favor by a homicide detective in El Paso. Within an hour I received a call from a gravel-voice detective who established his bona fides without revealing his name or rank.

After some initial back-and-forth, he said, “We’re certain it’s a professional hit, but we can’t shake this guy’s story. He’s taking the fall, so there must be something in it for him.”

“Like what?”

“He has a wife and a daughter and stage-three lung cancer. He gets convicted, he’ll be dead before we ever strap him into the chair.”

“And his family?”

“Wouldn’t be surprised if their standard of living doesn’t improve significantly.”


He didn’t answer directly. He said, “The dead guy’s a banker. Follow the money.”


Following the money led back to Huaco Bank & Trust and the Exter family. Had the Exter family continued living in high cotton thanks to an influx of cartel cash? If so, what message had been sent by killing the bank president’s daughter and son-in-law? Before I could answer my own questions, I heard, “Moe Ron?”

I looked up and saw Millie standing in the open doorway.

“You’re here late,” I said.

“Had a guy visit me this afternoon,” he said. “Said they aren’t waiting to start the demolition. The wrecking crew starts work next Monday.”

“You found a place yet?”

“Looking at a building over on Washington Avenue.” Instead of replacing the old buildings, like the developer was planning to do with ours, the buildings on Washington Avenue were being renovated. “You?”

“I haven’t had time.” I’d had time, I just hadn’t used it. “This case is taking all my attention.”

“Think they’re pushing up the demolition date because of you?” Millie asked.
Knowing whose bank was financing the project, I had no reason to doubt it.


I was uncertain about my next step, so I spent the following morning moving files from my office to my second bedroom for storage until I found a new place. I was back at the office packing a second carload when I received an unexpected phone call.

I had not spoken to Elroy Johnson in years, and he did not introduce himself, but I recognized his voice. “I heard you been asking questions about an incident in El Paso.”

“A few.”

Texas is a big state, made smaller by men like Elroy Johnson. With loose connections to Families in Kansas City, St. Louis, and New Orleans they laundered money, brokered deals with the Mexican Mafia, and shared news of important events across the state. I’d known Elroy since childhood when I’d played high school football with his nephew, and when I was younger our paths crossed more often than I cared to admit. He asked, “What’s it to you?”

“A little girl lost both her parents.” I told him about Caroline Poe Exter and why her aunt Julia had hired me.

“The mother was an accident,” Johnson said. “She wasn’t supposed to be with him.”

“Did he know what he was walking into?”

“Exter knew.”

“You’re saying his father-in-law set him up?”

“There’s a quarter million unaccounted for,” Johnson said. “Someone had to pay.”

I had stepped ass deep into Exter’s dirty laundry and it turned out to be laundered money.

“The Exters have a place on the shores of Lake Palestine,” Johnson continued. “She took the little girl there. She has a bodyguard, an ex-cop, so go prepared.”

“How do you know?”

“Information is my business,” Johnson said. “Make sure the little girl is safe and then get out of the way.”

After ending the conversation, I walked down the hall to talk to Lester Beeson. He was cleaning out his files, and three plastic trash bags were awaiting a trip to the dumpster out back.

“The ex-cop you mentioned the other day,” I said, “what was his name?”

“Cheesebrough,” he said. “Carter Cheesebrough.”

Mr. Cheese.

I crossed the hall to the tattoo parlor and told Millie I needed his help.

When we left late that afternoon for the two-and-a-half hour drive to Lake Palestine, Millie left the tattoo parlor in Alice Frizell’s hands. I rode shotgun in Millie’s 1965 Mustang, a car he’d rescued from a junkyard and restored during his limited free time.

Millie parked a quarter mile from the Exters’ lake house and made his way through the tall pines to the rear of the property. I walked up the winding drive, making no effort to mask my approach. I’d barely reached the top step of the veranda when the front door opened. A man built like a Frigidaire stepped out and said, “Who are you, and what do you want?”

I glanced at the Sig Sauer held in his right hand. “You must be Cheesebrough.”

He raised the pistol. “What do you want?”

“To talk to Mrs. Exter,” I said. “To lay eyes on her granddaughter.”

“And you are?”

“Your replacement.”

I had no idea how Millie made it through the house so quickly, but he clocked the bodyguard with a punch to the back of his head, and the unconscious man collapsed to the floor. We tied him to one of the dining room chairs and found Donna Exter and Caroline Exter Poe hiding in the master bedroom’s walk-in closet.

Mrs. Exter filled out a Ralph Lauren denim shirt and a pair of dark-wash jeans with a shapely figure that had softened with age. Her golden blond bob had been expertly highlighted, and she had accented her deceptively casual appearance with diamond stud earrings, a Breitling watch, and a diamond solitaire engagement ring worth more than my car. Beside her, Caroline wore OshKosh denim overalls over a pink T-shirt and pink running shoes, static electricity causing her shoulder-length flyaway blond hair to stick to everything around her.

As Mrs. Exter pushed her granddaughter behind her, she stared over my shoulder at the Illustrated Man that was Millie. Every part of his body I had ever seen, except his face and his palms, was covered with tattoos that frightened genteel society.

She said, “Do what you want with me but leave Caroline alone.”

“Collect whatever you think you need,” I told her. “You’re going home.”

While she gathered a few things, I made a call. Someone Elroy Johnson knew would release Cheesebrough from his bonds a few hours after we drove away, and within twenty minutes, I was behind the wheel of Mrs. Exter’s Escalade, with her in the passenger seat and Caroline in her car seat in back. Millie followed in his Mustang.
On the return trip to Waco, I told Mrs. Exter what I had learned about her husband’s business activities and the reason her daughter and son-in-law had been murdered in El Paso. She listened, asked no questions, and after I finished rode the rest of the way in silence.

I was half an hour from Waco when I called Julia to tell her I had located her niece, that Exter had been responsible for her brother’s death, and that she need to meet us at the Exters’ home if she wanted to see Caroline. When we arrived, we found Julia standing in the Exters’ living room, one hand tightly gripping her .25 ACP Baby Browning Pistol as she pointed it between David Alexrod Exter IV’s steel-gray eyes.
He sat in an overstuffed chair, wearing a blue pin-striped suit, the knot of his red tie pulled askew, and the top button of his rumpled white shirt unfastened. He had aged since his visit to my office. She wore jeans and a loose-fitting white T-shirt and, without make-up and her hair askew, and looked younger than her years. The nervous tic in her left eye had returned.

“You don’t want to do this,” I said.

“He killed my brother.”

“He didn’t—”

“He didn’t pull the trigger,” she said, “but he might as well have.”

“You do this and you’ll never see your niece again.”

Millie, Mrs. Exter, and Caroline stood behind me. Mrs. Exter stepped around Millie and addressed her husband. “Is it true, what they told me? Did Austin die because you’ve been laundering drug money for the cartels? Because you skimmed some of it?”

Without taking his attention from the pistol in Julia’s hands, he nodded.

“And Holly?”

“Holly wasn’t supposed to be with him,” he said. “She was collateral damage.”

“Collateral damage?” Mrs. Exter’s voice rose. “She was my daughter!”

Exter said nothing.

“Give me that.” Mrs. Exter reached out and took the pistol from Julia’s hand. “Now go. Take Caroline and go.”

Millie and I hustled Julia and Caroline out through the front door. I had just opened the passenger door of Millie’s Mustang when I heard the first shot. Five more shots followed.

Schrödinger’s cat. As long as I didn’t look back, Exter was both alive and dead, and I wasn’t certain it mattered either way.


I learned later that Donna Exter hadn’t killed her husband, but six shots from Julia’s little handgun perforated him in ways from which he could never recover. Exter spends his days drooling on himself, thinking thoughts no one will ever know, while his wife spends her days incarcerated in the William P. Hobby Unit in Marlin.

A significant amount of money shifted from Huaco Bank & Trust to offshore accounts before the Feds swooped in and took control. Elroy Johnson ensured that some of it made its way back to Caroline and Julia in the form of a trust fund, and Julia left her position with the Hewitt Public Library to raise her niece.

Lester sold his business to Quimby and retired. Millie bought a two-story building on Washington Avenue for his tattoo parlor, and I rent the upstairs from him.

Business is slow.

Michael Bracken has written several books, including the private eye novel All White Girls, and more than 1,300 short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories, and in many other anthologies and periodicals. “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” his previous Morris Ronald Boyette story for Tough, was named one of the Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2018 by the editors of The Best American Mystery Stories. He lives, writes, and edits in Texas.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Town Where Money Grew on Trees, fiction by Michael Bracken

Zipper Hardwick unlocked the door to her uncle’s antiques shop, a ramshackle corner store filled more with junk than actual antiques that shared a common wall with Lefty’s Leftover on a street filled with several similar stores. She remembered visiting Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs as a child but likely never would have visited again had she not inherited the business upon his death three weeks earlier.

Despite earning a B.A. in English, the best-paying position she had been able to find in the seventeen years since graduation was serving drinks at a biker bar in St. Louis, and she welcomed the opportunity to change her life’s direction. That’s why she packed what little she owned in her nine-year-old minivan and drove to southwest Texas to collect the keys to her uncle’s shop from a small-town attorney who appeared surprised that she bothered to make the trip for what he claimed were negligible assets.

He tried hard to talk her out of taking possession of her uncle’s business and to his residence above the store, offering to liquidate the dead man’s assets and cut her a check upon completion of the process. “I can’t see that there’s anything there for a young woman such as yourself.”

“After my father died,” Zipper explained before collecting the keys from the attorney’s desk, “my uncle supported my mother and me, and he put me through college. He must have left something of value.”

“Junk,” the attorney said. “Nothing but junk. You’d be better off—”

She walked out of the attorney’s office without looking back. Ten minutes later, she stood in the doorway of Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs and stared at the dust-covered displays of unidentifiable miscellany, reconsidering her decision. Then, with suitcase in hand, she walked through the shop and up the back stairs to the living quarters on the second floor.

The apartment was only marginally cleaner than the shop downstairs, but more because it had not been attended to since her uncle’s demise than from the obvious neglect suffered by the shop. After acquainting herself with the apartment’s layout and finding both electricity and water service functioning, she spent the better part of the day making the apartment habitable.

She waited until evening to examine the framed photographs lining the hallway between the living room and the bedrooms. Though she had not seen them in years, she remembered many of the fading black-and-white photographs. Those of her father and her uncle, inseparable twins born in the late nineteen-thirties, occupied the end of the hall nearest the living room, and the photographs grew increasingly more recent and in color as she worked her way toward the opposite end of the hall. Halfway along, she found a photograph of her parents on their wedding day.

There were no more photographs of her father after that—he died before she was born—but her uncle had hung several photographs of her as a young girl, with and without her mother, and one in which he appeared with them when she was a toddler, standing in front of Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs and leaning heavily on a cane that did not appear in any photographs taken prior to that. At the end of the hall nearest the bedroom door were her high school and college graduation photos, but nothing later than that because her mother’s passing ended the flow of photographs to her uncle.

She returned to her parents’ wedding photo and stared at it for a long time, wondering how her life might have been different if her father had not been taken from her, and wondering why neither her mother nor her uncle ever told her how he died.

After breakfast the following morning, Zipper dressed in running shoes, slim-fit jeans, and a T-shirt from her former employer, pulled her raven-black hair into a loose ponytail, and walked downstairs to the antiques shop.

She’d been working for several hours, making negligible sense of the sales records she found, and she had her back to the door when a thick-chested man with a nose angled unnaturally to the left slapped a black leather briefcase onto the counter, startling her. When she turned, he asked, “Where’s the gimp?”


“Hardwick. Luther Hardwick.”

“My uncle?” she said. “He passed away three weeks ago.”

“You took over his business?”

“Yes,” she said. “I did.”

“So you know what to do.” He spun the briefcase around, popped the locks, and pulled up the top, revealing a six-inch Subway sandwich and ten banded stacks of hundred-dollar bills. “It’s a hundred grand,” he said, “so give me a receipt and let me get on my way.”

“A receipt for what?”

He narrowed his eyes and then nodded his head at something over her left shoulder. “How about that armoire and the table and chairs next to it.”

“For a hundred thousand dollars?” She had no idea what the armoire, table, and chairs were worth, but she wasn’t about to haggle with the man. She reached for a receipt book she’d seen earlier. “I can do that.”

She asked for his name, thought nothing of it when he identified himself as John Smith, and a moment later handed him a handwritten receipt.

He took the receipt, reached in the briefcase for the sandwich, and headed for the door.

Zipper called to his receding back. “When shall I expect you to pick up your—”

Before she could finish her question, the door closed behind him and he was gone.

Zipper closed the briefcase, slid it under the counter next to the cut-down, pistol-grip shotgun she’d discovered that morning, and made out yellow Sold stickers to affix to all the furniture her first customer had purchased. As she did, though, she suspected the man’s purchases had less value than the stickers she used to identify them.

She locked the front door, returned to the briefcase, and removed one banded stack of hundred-dollar bills. She handled a great deal of cash while slinging drinks at the bar, though most denominations were smaller than those in the briefcase, so she had grown adept at identifying suspect currency. She broke the band, laid several of the bills on the counter, ensured that none of the serial numbers repeated, and then examined each of the first ten bills. She saw nothing suspicious about any of them.

A rap on the front door startled her. She quickly scooped the money off the counter and returned it to the briefcase before opening the door for the elderly gentleman standing on the sidewalk outside. He wore black-framed eyeglasses, had half a dozen gray hairs combed over the top of his otherwise bald pate, and his right arm ended just above the elbow.

He took her right hand in his left. “Little Zippy?”

“Mr. Columbini?”

“No need to be so formal,” he said. “Just call me Lefty. Everyone does.”

“I haven’t seen you since—”

“Since the day I took your photograph before your mother took you up north,” Lefty said. “Your uncle always shared her letters and showed me your pictures. He was so proud when you graduated college, but after your mother passed there weren’t so many letters.”

“No need,” she said. “MySpace and then Facebook, Instagram, and—”

She saw the blank look on his face and didn’t continue listing the social media accounts she maintained. He was likely as clueless as her uncle.

“So, Mr.—” She stopped and corrected herself. “So, Lefty, what can I do for you?”

“I heard about the store’s new owner,” he said. “I never thought it would be you.”

“Why’s that?”

“We have a certain way of doing things around here, that’s all.” His gaze swept the interior of the store before his attention returned to her. “You ever need anything, you let me know. I owe Luther that much.”

“Sure,” Zipper said. “I will.”

He smiled, released his grip on her hand, and turned to leave.

“I do have one question for you,” she said, stopping him. “That armoire over there, with the table and chairs next to it, is it worth anything?”

He looked in the direction she pointed. “Little Zipper,” he said, “what you have in this store is worth a great deal more than you realize.”

Before she could question what Lefty meant, he was gone, and she was once again alone in Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs.

That afternoon Zipper took the morning’s windfall and went shopping, a round trip that put almost a hundred miles on the odometer of her minivan. Though Oroville had a small convenience store with two gas pumps out front, it lacked an actual grocery store. She drove all the way to Chicken Junction, the nearest town with a Walmart, and loaded her van with a month’s worth of staples, a week’s worth of perishables, and more cleaning supplies than she had owned in her entire life. She also purchased new sheets, towels, and washcloths, as well as several vanilla-scented candles she hoped would mask the overwhelming aroma of neglect in the antiques shop.

She made one additional stop before driving home and hauling everything upstairs. She restocked the kitchen, remade the bed, and sat at the kitchen table with an open bottle of Budweiser and her uncle’s handwritten ledgers spread out in front of her. Despite seeing no evidence that anything in the shop had moved in ages, the ledgers provided evidence of a brisk cash business, with large sums of money moving in and out on a regular basis.

Zipper could make no sense of it but felt certain she would soon comprehend her uncle’s bookkeeping process. Until then, she had almost one hundred thousand dollars she needed to keep safe. She put the briefcase under her bed and her uncle’s shotgun on the nightstand.

The briefcase and the shotgun were still there in the morning, so she started her day much like she had the previous day, but with better cleaning supplies. By noon she had finished the counter area. The glass display cases gleamed and the cheap jewelry inside sparkled. After a ham sandwich and a Budweiser, she attacked the grime coating the plate-glass windows fronting the store.

By dinnertime she had finished with the window displays, removing junk and replacing it with items she thought might attract passersby. By the time she called it a night, her hair straggly and her T-shirt soaked with sweat, she felt a strong sense of accomplishment. That evening, Budweiser in hand, she again examined all the photographs hung in the hallway of the apartment, and she again stopped to stare at her parents’ wedding photo and the one next to it of her as a toddler standing with her mother and uncle. The gap in her uncle’s photographic timeline bothered her, but she wasn’t certain why. She took both picture frames off the wall, examined the backs and found nothing tucked behind the photos but cardboard spacer, and reassembled everything with a small addition to her parents’ wedding photo before returning the frames to their places on the wall.

The next few days were much the same. Zipper cleaned and rearranged during the day and spent her evenings going through her uncle’s things. She discovered a box filled with letters from her mother to her uncle and, as she read through them, relived her late childhood. The letters started after they moved to St. Louis, and the most recent was dated two days before her mother’s passing. She was surprised by how much her mother told her uncle—the bicycle accident that left a scar on her left elbow, her winning second place in a high school essay contest, her first date, college acceptance, high school graduation, college graduation, and much more. Growing up, she had never seen any letters from her uncle, but he must have sent a few because her mother sometimes referenced them in her letters, commenting on his health and thanking him for money sent.

A week after her arrival, and for the first time since her arrival, the shop’s phone—a heavy black landline phone—rang. Zipper picked up the handset and practiced one of the slogans she had been contemplating. “Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs. Someone else’s trash could be your treasure.”

“Ms. Hardwick?” said a deep male voice. “This is Thomas LeCroix, president of the Oroville Bank & Trust.”

“What can I do for you, Mr. LeCroix?”

“I understand you had a rather large cash sale the other day,” he said, “and I’ve not seen a corresponding deposit into your account.”

“My account?”

“Your uncle banked with us, and I was expecting that financial relationship to continue.”

“And why is that?”

“There’s a substantial payment due at the end of the week, and if the money’s not in your account to cover it, there’s a hefty penalty.”

“What’s your fee for a bounced check?” Zipper asked. “Twenty-five dollars? Thirty-five dollars?”

“It isn’t the overdraft fee you most need to concern yourself with,” LeCroix said, “it’s what will happen when the collection agency comes for the money.”

Zipper had dealt with collection agents before, when she’d been between jobs and had relied on her credit cards to stay afloat. They talked tough, made a lot of threats, and ultimately had no recourse but to work with her when they learned she had no assets to attach and no wages to garnish.

“I think I can handle a couple of threatening phone calls, Mr. LeCroix,” she told the banker, “so I’ll just take my chances.”


Zipper disconnected the call, and it wasn’t until she was nursing a beer with her dinner that evening that she wondered how the banker had known about her sale of the armoire, table, and chairs, and why they still hadn’t been picked up.

The next day, Zipper had another visitor. The sheriff sauntered into the shop, and his gaze swept the store’s interior as he approached the counter. Without introducing himself, he said, “I’m surprised you’re still here.”

She introduced herself. “Zipper Hardwick.”

He glanced at her outstretched hand, nails broken and skin rough from the punishment of cleaning. When he didn’t take it, she slowly lowered her hand.

“Looks like you wasted a lot of effort on this place.”

“Just trying to make it an inviting environment for customers.”

“You think your uncle earned a living selling this shit?” the sheriff said. “You are woefully mistaken little lady.”

Before Zipper could respond, they were interrupted by a young couple bursting through the door. The woman gushed when she exclaimed, “I drive through this town all the time, and I’ve never seen one of these stores open.”

Zipper stepped from behind counter, away from the sheriff, “Welcome to Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs, where today’s trash is tomorrow’s treasure. Can I help you find anything in particular?”

“No, no. We’re just looking, but—” The woman interrupted herself and turned to the man with her. “Trevor, do you see that lamp? Look at that lamp. It would look great in your office.”

The sheriff caught Zipper’s attention, touched a finger to the brim of his hat, and said, “We’ll continue this conversation another day, little lady, if you’re still here.”

After her customers left with the lamp, a set of matching cups, and two metal signs that once graced the walls of a service station, Zipper hung up a Be Back Soon sign, locked up her shop, and walked to Lefty’s Leftovers.

The door was bolted, and no hours were posted, so she pounded on the door until Lefty poked his head out from a back room and recognized her. She waited as he walked the length of his antiques shop and let her in.

“You need to tell me about my uncle.”

Lefty settled onto a stool behind his front counter. “What do you know?”

“Only that he ran Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs my entire life.”

“Your mother ever tell what he did before that?” Lefty asked. “Or what your father did?”

Zipper shook her head.

“They were trying to protect you,” he said. “The less you knew, the better off you were.”

“So tell me now, if you know so much.”

“You know how your uncle got that limp?”


“He was shot robbing a bank.”

“Uncle Luther?”

“He wasn’t the only one shot,” Lefty said. “So was your father. Same bank job, only he didn’t make it.”

“No,” Zipper said. “That can’t be true.”

“Look it up on your Google thing,” Lefty said. He told her the name of the bank and the date of the heist. “The police never caught the robbers.”

Zipper paced back and forth in front of the counter. “So, why come here? Why run an antiques store?”

Lefty held up the stump of his right arm. “You ever pay attention to the other store owners when you were a kid visiting your uncle?”

“Not really.”

“You should have. They’re all like your uncle. Like me.” He waved his stump at her. “Armored car job. Barney down at Barney’s Bric-a-Brac, with the one eye? Jewelry store heist. And Marty of Marty’s Memories?”

“Deaf as a doorknob.”

“Lost his hearing blowing the door off a safe,” Lefty said. “Every one of these shops is run by some crook with a disability. It’s like a retirement community. Guys loyal to the organization who can’t do the muscle work get sent here or sent someplace like this.”

Zipper finally put the pieces together. “You’re laundering money. The whole town is laundering money.”

“The convenience store is legit,” Lefty explained. “Otherwise, yes.”

“Shit,” Zipper said. “Shit, shit, shit.”

“Luther pulled a fast one,” Lefty said. “We’re supposed to leave everything to the organization when we pass on. He didn’t. He left his store to you. A few people in the organization thought he’d tipped you off, and that you would know what the arrangement was, but I knew better.”

“My uncle was a crook?”

“So was your father,” Lefty said, “but your uncle outlived the statute of limitations on all the crimes he may have committed.”

“Except money laundering.”

“And he was well rewarded for his loyalty. You, on the other hand—” Lefty paused. “They don’t owe you a thing, and they have no reason to believe they can work with you.”

She thought about the briefcase under her front counter next to the cut-down shotgun and decided she needed to return to her shop.

That night she stared hard at the photographs of her father and her uncle, imagining what might have driven them to a life of crime. She had no answers, but she had a laptop computer and she spent the next hour learning what little she could about the bank heist Lefty claimed her father and uncle had pulled off. The job had involved two inside men and a getaway driver and had culminated with a shootout between the robbers and bank guards before the robbers escaped. They were never found.

Zipper was alone in Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs the morning two men the size and shape of small dump trucks pushed through the front door. She stood behind the counter watching as they approached.

“Welcome to Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs, home of the dickering diva,” she said. “Help you gentlemen?”

“You Hardwick?” asked the bigger one.

“I am,” she said. “You must be here to pick up the armoire.” He glanced at the other man. “We’re here to pick up something, but it ain’t no wardrobe.”

The shotgun was under the counter between the briefcase and her purse, and Zipper wrapped her hand around the shotgun’s pistol grip.

“You had a payment due Friday. We ain’t received it.”


“We come to collect.”

“And if I don’t pay you?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Why? You planning to drop my body down an abandoned oil well somewhere?”

He shrugged. “You wouldn’t be the first.”

The smaller man stepped to the side, stretching the distance between the two men so that she could not see them both without turning her head. She kept her attention on the man standing on the other side of the counter, tightened her grip on the shotgun, and rested her finger on the trigger. A slight squeeze would blow out the front of the counter and fill his crotch with birdshot and splinters.

Lefty stepped through the front door, a .9mm Beretta in his left hand pointed at the smaller man. “You don’t want to do that, Diesel.”

“Morning, Lefty,” said the bigger man. “I didn’t think you crawled out of bed this early.”

“Thought I should check on my new neighbor when I saw your truck out front, Ace.”

“Ms. Hardwick here seems to have a cash-flow problem,” Diesel said. “Money went in, but none came out. We came to—”

“I know what you came for,” Lefty said, “but let’s not do this today.”

“You don’t want to get sideways with the boss, Lefty.”

“I’m eighty-seven years old,” the old man said. “What the fuck do I care?”

“Another time, ma’am,” Ace said as he nodded to Zipper. Then he motioned to his partner. “Let’s go, Diesel.”

Lefty kept his weapon pointed at the two men as he stepped aside to let them exit. After their truck drove away, he turned to Zipper. “You have any idea what those two planned to do to you?”

She pulled the shotgun from under the counter. “I worked in a biker bar,” she said, “so it wouldn’t be the first time I shot a man.”

Lefty laughed. “You’re more like your uncle than I would have thought.”

“You want a beer?”

When Lefty said he would, Zipper locked the front door. She flipped the sign to Closed, grabbed the shotgun, the briefcase, and her purse, and led him up the back stairs. A few minutes later, they sat at her kitchen table nursing cold bottles of Budweiser. The briefcase leaned against her chair, but the shotgun remained on the counter where she’d placed it next to her purse and her laptop computer before reaching into the refrigerator for their beer.

Lefty told Zipper about her uncle. “There isn’t much a gimp and a one-armed man can do for fun, especially in a town like this,” Lefty said, “so we spent a lot of nights sitting at this table or at mine drinking, telling stories, and making plans for the future. Your uncle’s stories were mostly about you.”


“He wanted more for you than he ever had, than your mother ever had,” Lefty explained. His Beretta lay on the table next to his sweating beer bottle. “That’s why he paid for your college.” “I’m guessing he was none too proud of my career choice.”

“The biker bar? He knew all about it. He even reached out to a guy who knew a guy to make certain you were never bothered by any of the lowlifes hanging out there.”

Zipper thought back to the time she shot a biker trying to rob the bar. The night didn’t end with the arrival of police, as she expected, but with the man’s disappearance and a rather thorough cleaning of the floor where he’d bled out.

“Things are different now,” Lefty said. “Your uncle can’t protect you from the grave.”

“But you did.”

“I didn’t do it for you,” he said, “and I likely won’t have a chance to do it again. Those boys we ran off today will come back unless you deposit that money in the bank.”

“I can’t,” Zipper said. “I spent some of it fixing this place up.”

“How much do you have left?”

“Ninety-six and change.”

Lefty snatched his Beretta from the table top and leveled it at Zipper, making her wish she hadn’t left the shotgun on the counter. “Lefty, I—”

“Duck, Little Zippy,” he commanded, and she ducked. Lefty continued, “You can come in now, Sheriff Cathcart, but do it nice and slow and keep your hands where I can see them.”

From her position half-under the table, Zipper turned and saw the sheriff step carefully into her kitchen, his hands held up to shoulder level. He had climbed the back stairs without her hearing his ascent.

“Don’t cross between us, Little Zippy,” Lefty said, “but I think you’d best get your shotgun.”

Zipper did as instructed, and she leaned against the counter with the shotgun in her hands as the two men talked.

“You really don’t want to be in the middle of this,” the sheriff told Lefty.

“You come all the way up here to tell me that?”

“I came up here for the money.”

“And if you don’t get it?”

“Ace and Diesel will, and they’re none too happy with your interrupting them earlier.”

Lefty used one foot to push the briefcase from under the table. “It’s a little light,” he said, “but I can make up the difference.”

Sheriff Cathcart lowered his hands and bent to reach for the briefcase.

Zipper followed his movements with the barrel of the shotgun. “You sure you want to do that?”

“Let him take it,” Lefty said.

The sheriff lifted the briefcase from the floor, straightened, and touched the brim of his hat with his fingertip. “Ma’am.”

After Cathcart left, Zipper said, “The sheriff isn’t going to be happy when he opens the briefcase. It’s filled with nothing but crumpled paper.”

“The way you’ve been guarding it, I thought—”

“So did he. So did those two goons who stopped by earlier.”

“He’ll come back,” Lefty said, “and he’ll bring Ace and Diesel with him.”

Zipper patted the shotgun. “I’m ready.”

“Our beer’s getting warm,” Lefty said as he motioned toward them with the barrel of his Beretta. He laid the pistol on the tabletop and reached for his beer. “We should finish it.”

When Lefty lifted his beer to his lips, Zipper joined him at the table. She turned her chair so she could watch the staircase, laid the shotgun across her lap, and reached for her beer.

“So,” Lefty asked, “where is the money?”

“In a safe deposit box in Chicken Junction,” Zipper said. “I didn’t drive all that way just for cleaning supplies.”

“And the key?”

Zipper smiled and stared across the table at Lefty. “I’m not entirely certain whose side you’re on, Mr. Columbini. You might be helping me because of some obligation to my uncle, or you might be after the money yourself.”

“Ninety-six Gs isn’t enough to get myself sideways with my employer.”

“And yet, here you are.”

Lefty smiled. “That picture in the hall of you and your mom and your uncle,” he said. “I took it the day before your mother took you up north.”

Without realizing it, Zipper glanced down the hallway.

“I found an old Brownie and a tripod in the back of the shop,” he explained. “I took several photographs of the three of you that day, but that’s the only one in focus.”

Zipper said nothing as Lefty took a deep breath before continuing. “Perhaps there’s something else that needs to be in focus,” he said. “The day Luther was shot and your father killed, I was the getaway driver. I was young and it was my first job. I was a minute late, and your uncle and father were shooting it out with the bank guards when I arrived. Maybe things would have turned out different if I hadn’t been a greenhorn, but Luther never said a bad word about me, and he never told your mother I was the driver.”

Zipper felt the building reverberate when the front door of the shop was kicked open, but she said nothing.

“A couple of years later I was with a crew that blew open an armored car. A jagged piece of debris severed my arm and I was sent here to take over the shop right next to your uncle. I hadn’t known your mother was pregnant when your father died, and I couldn’t look her in the eye whenever we were together. I think that’s why most of the photos were out of focus. So, yeah, I owe something to your mother, if not to Luther.”

“They’re here,” Zipper said. “I can hear them downstairs.”

Lefty took a deep breath. “Then you’d best get out of here. Give me the shotgun and go.”


“In the back of the bedroom closet is a hidden doorway. It opens into my bedroom closet. Go through it and close it behind you. In my nightstand drawer is a manila envelope with everything you need to access an offshore account Luther and I shared. There’s a million two in it that we set aside for our retirement. With the ninety-six Gs you’ve already glommed onto, you should be able to disappear.”

“I can’t leave you—”

“You don’t have a choice. Give me the shotgun and get out of here. I’ll keep these guys occupied long enough you should be able to get away.”

They heard footsteps on the back stairs.


Zipper shoved the shotgun across the table, grabbed her purse and laptop computer from the kitchen counter, and ran down the hall. There wasn’t time to collect all her things, but she paused long enough to grab two photos from the hall—her parents’ wedding photo and the one of her as a toddler standing with her mother and uncle in front of Hardwick’s Hand-Me-Downs. She ducked into her closet, went through to Lefty’s closet, and closed the hidden door behind her. She found the manila envelope exactly where Lefty said it would be, and she was on her way down his back steps when she heard the roar of her shotgun and several additional gunshots. She didn’t stop to look back but ran out to her minivan and drove away from Oroville. An hour later, she retrieved the key hidden in the back of her parents’ wedding photo, collected the cash from her safe deposit box in Chicken Junction, and left her minivan in the Walmart parking lot. Half an hour after that, she paid cash for a motorcycle and a helmet and headed west. Lefty’s actions had led to her father’s death, but they had also given her the chance to live. Zipper had no idea how far or how long she could run from her family’s past, but she owed it to Lefty to find out.

Michael Bracken has written several books, including the private eye novel All White Girls, and more than 1,300 short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories, and in many other anthologies and periodicals. Additionally, he’s edited several anthologies, including The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods. He lives, writes, and edits in Texas.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Itsy Bitsy Spider, by Michael Bracken

I recognized Millie’s work when I saw the tattooed spider web that radiated out from Mona’s quarter-sized areola and covered her entire left breast.

“Where’s the spider?” I asked.

A coy smile tugged at the corners of Mona Peterson’s lips.

I found the spider later, tattooed at the edge of her bikini line, its eight little legs caught in her curly black pubic hair. By then, I was trapped.

Before then, though, I could have walked away. I probably should have.


She first came to my office on a wet Tuesday afternoon, her college T-shirt glued to her like a second skin, and it was obvious she was both cold and braless. I tried not to stare at the dimpling of her thin gold T-shirt as she stood on the other side of my desk and dripped on my carpet.

Her hair hung in a sodden black mop and she tucked it behind her ears before she looked around my office. When she spied a stack of business cards on the corner of my desk, she pried one off the top. Neatly thermographed on the front of the card were my name—Morris Ronald Boyette—and my contact information. She held the card close to her face while she read. When she looked up, she asked, “This you?”

I’d just deposited a few thousand in my bank account—the final payment from a philandering spouse case I’d wrapped up less than a week earlier when I’d caught the husband on video sticking it to my client’s sister on top of a picnic table in Cameron Park—and I didn’t feel charitable. I said, “Yeah, it’s me.”

She dug into the front pocket of her tight-fitting jeans and dropped a wad of green on my blotter. I carefully peeled the wad apart, discovering five waterlogged Benjamin Franklins.

“I want to hire you.”


Millard Wayne Trout—Millie of Millie’s Tattoos and Piercings—listened to the story over tacos and beer after he closed his tattoo parlor that night.

“She walked all the way from the university in the rain?”

“That’s what she said,” I told him between bites.

“Did you carry her back?”

“I offered.”

Millie wore a gray sweatshirt, leaving only the tattoos covering his hands, fingers, and shaved head visible until he pushed the sleeves up to his elbows and exposed his thick arms. 


“She said no.”

“You see where she went?”

I shook my head. My office is a single room in the back of the building, behind Millie’s 
Tattoos and Piercings. The empty suite across the hall from my office had once been occupied by a finance company too legitimate for the neighborhood and, in front of it, facing the street, was Big Mac’s Bail Bonds. Without leaving the building, I could only see the alley behind the building and the empty lot to the side.

Millie drained his beer and opened another.

Someone tapped on the window and we both turned. Standing on the sidewalk outside were two young women—blond, bouncy, and probably wasted. Millie walked to the front, unlocked the door, and pulled it opened. He stood in the open doorway to prevent the women from entering.

“We’re closed.”

“No, please. Open up for us,” said the taller of the two. “My friend wants a tattoo.”

The shorter one reached in her pocket and pulled out a wad of money. “We can pay cash.”

“Come back when you’re sober, ladies,” Millie said.

“She won’t do it when she’s sober,” protested the taller one. She looked at her friend. “Show him where you want it.”

The shorter blonde pulled down her tube-top.

“She wants it to say ‘Got Milk?’”

“When you’re sober, ladies,” Millie repeated.

“We’ll just go somewhere else!”

Millie eased the door closed. The two young women looked at each other while the shorter one pulled up her top. They staggered away.

Millie returned to the counter where we’d been eating. “Sober clients don’t have regrets,” he said. He poked through the wrappers and found the last taco. “I hate it when they come back crying.”


The next morning, after a quick Internet search and a few phone calls, I drove to the university and parked in one of the visitor lots. I hadn’t been on campus in months and it took a while to wend my way through all the new construction. I finally found Mona’s English professor in his office, half-hidden behind a pile of books.

He looked up when I closed the door behind me. “May I help you?”

I settled into the only unoccupied seat, rested my elbows on the arms, and steepled my fingers in front of my chest. “That depends.”


“How well you know Mona Peterson.”

Color slowly drained from his face. “You related?”

I nodded. “We can trace our relationship back to Benjamin Franklin.” Quintuplet Benjamin Franklins.

His eyes narrowed. “What did she tell you?”

“What matters is what I tell you,” I said. “You don’t contact Mona again. She gets an A in your course. I hear different, I come back to visit you.”

He sat up a little straighter. “You can’t do anything to me,” he said. “I have tenure.”

“You might keep your tenure,” I explained, “but you won’t keep your balls.”

I let myself out of his office and returned to my Chevy.


Lester Beeson had taken over Big Mac’s Bail Bonds twenty-seven years earlier when a disgruntled client emptied a shotgun in Macdonald Pearson’s face. Lester was sitting behind his desk thumbing through a stack of file folders when I stepped into his office. He looked up, saw me, and pulled a folder from the middle of the stack. He tossed it across the desk.

“This guy’s become a pain in my ass.”

I flipped the folder open and looked at an average Joe, the kind of guy who worked every minute of overtime the company offered so he could pay for the bass boat he used as an excuse to get away from some shrew of a wife.

“His name’s Carl Weaver. He lives with his wife in Hubbard.” Lester gave me the address. 

“He don’t answer when I call, and the employer I have listed in his file says he ain’t shown up for work in a month.”


“I need to see him in my office. I want some reassurance that he hasn’t skipped.”


Millie left his shop in the capable hands of Alice Frizell, a wisp of a tattoo artist he’d hired a year earlier, and he rode with me to Hubbard, a small town about thirty miles northeast of Waco.

Weaver lived in a one-bedroom frame house near the cemetery, and only one car occupied the driveway. I dropped Millie in the alley where he could watch the back of the house, and I found a convenient place to watch the front.

Weaver arrived home nearly an hour later, parked his pickup truck next to the car, and went inside. Thirty minutes later, his wife exited the house, climbed into her car, and drove away.
I called Millie’s cellphone. When he answered, I said, “He’s alone in there. Let’s go get him.”

“About time,” Millie responded. “I’m freezing my ass off out here.”

I went through the front door and Millie came in through the back. We met in the living room and quickly realized we were alone in the house. We discovered why when we found the clothes Weaver had been wearing strewn across the bed, three wig stands—only two of which held wigs—on the dresser, and a selection of women’s clothes suitable for a large woman or a man of Weaver’s size.

“Think he’s really married?” Millie asked.

Although we found a lot of make-up, we found no feminine products. “If he ever was,” I said, “he isn’t now.”

Millie and I left things pretty much as we found them and walked out to my Chevy. We drove to a small cafe, ordered cheeseburgers, fries, and coffee. While we ate, a young couple sat at a table near us. The woman wore low-slung jeans that exposed the T-bar of her thong and the tramp stamp above the crack of her ass.

Millie jerked his thumb at the woman’s tattoo. “Whoever did that should break all his needles and quit the business. I do better work when I’m blind drunk.”

“Why do they do it?”

“People get tattoos for all sorts of reasons,” Millie said. “I do a lot of ugly people who would be better off spending the money on dental work and plastic surgery. And I do eighteen-year-olds rebelling against their parents who will probably regret it when they grow up to be soccer moms and Boy Scout dads.”

I looked at Millie. Every part of his body that I had ever seen, except his face and his palms, was covered with tattoos. I wondered where he fit in.

After we finished dinner, Millie and I returned to Weaver’s house. We waited in my Chevy until Weaver’s return at half past midnight, and we were tired and not in the mood for subtlety.

For a second time, Millie went through the back door and I went through the front. We caught Weaver standing in his bedroom wearing only a bra and panties. He tried to resist until Millie planted a fist in his gut. We threw a blanket over him and grabbed some clothes. We walked him to my car, where he sat in back next to Millie and pulled on the clothes we’d grabbed for him.

On the return trip to Waco, I phoned Lester and told him we had Weaver. I said, “You could have told me he’s a cross-dresser.”

Lester laughed. “He must be one ugly woman.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

The bail bondsman met us at his office fifteen minutes later.

“How’m I going to get home?” Weaver asked.

“Not our problem,” I told him as I left with Lester. I knew the guy probably wasn’t going home, and where he was going his choice of underthings would not work in his favor.

After we left Lester’s office, Millie slipped into his car—a 1965 Mustang he’d rescued from a 
junkyard—and I went home.


Mona Peterson returned to my office at the beginning of the Christmas break. She carried a backpack and said she had no family with whom to spend the holidays. She said she wanted to thank me for taking care of her problem earlier in the semester.

I told her that the quintuplets had already shown their appreciation.

“The university won’t let students stay in the dorms during Christmas break.” I waited while Mona’s gaze traveled around my office before settling on my face. “I can’t go home and I can’t afford a motel. I gave you all the money I had.”

Clients always have sad stories or they wouldn’t need to hire guys like me. “I don’t give refunds.”

“No,” she said. “I suppose not. I wouldn’t ask for one.”

I waited.

“It’s just that—” She sucked her lower lip between her teeth and chewed on it.

I knew where Mona was headed, and I let her lead me there.

“Do you know any place I might stay?”

I did. I had a two-bedroom brick ranch just off of New Road and I took her there. The second bedroom had become a large walk-in closet filled with storage boxes and dust bunnies, so I prepared a place for her on the couch while she showered. I used floral print sheets and a pink blanket I hadn’t removed from the linen closet since my divorce.

After I finished preparing the couch, I retrieved a beer from the fridge, sat in my favorite chair in the living room, and nursed it.

When Mona stepped from the bathroom, she was wearing a white bath towel wrapped twice around her and was drying her hair with a second towel.

She looked at the makeshift bed and at me. “That’s not what I had in mind.”

Mona dropped one towel. Then she dropped the other. That’s when I saw the spider-web tattoo that covered her entire left breast. I gagged on my beer. When I recovered, I asked, “Where’s the spider?”

A coy smile tugged at the corners of my client’s lips as she crossed the room.

I shifted position but couldn’t hide my reaction to her nakedness. She straddled my lap and gyrated her hips ever so slowly.

One hand still held the beer. The other held tight to the arm of the chair. I said, “We 
shouldn’t do this.”

Mona continued gyrating her hips as she leaned forward and pressed her lips against mine. 

They were soft and parted easily to allow our tongues to meet.

I dropped my beer, wrapped my arms around her, and carried her into the bedroom.

When I buried my face between her thighs, I saw the spider, its eight little legs caught in her curly black pubic hair, so small I could only see it close up. Before I had a chance to react, Mona grabbed the back of my head and thrust her pubic bone against my nose.

I had not been with a woman her age since I had been a man her age. I had forgotten how energetic they could be, and we found several ways to pleasure one another. When we finished, Mona turned away, curled into a fetal ball, and fell asleep.

After I slid out of bed, I padded barefoot and naked into the living room, where I picked up the half-empty beer bottle I’d dropped before carrying Mona to bed. I used an old towel to soak up the spilled beer. Then I opened a fresh bottle and drank it while contemplating the meaning of Mona’s tattoo and the web she had spun for her English professor.


I returned to the office three days later, did nothing most of the morning, and accepted Millie’s invitation to lunch at the wing place down the street.

Millie stared hard at the blonde seated two tables away. “That’s the perfect canvas,” he said. “Smooth alabaster skin, nearly hairless.”

I told him about Mona’s spider web and that it seemed like his work.

“The spider web?” Millie said. “I’ve only done one like it, must have been a year ago, maybe two. The girl looked so young I made her show I.D. She came alone, paid cash before I started, and never once complained about the process. Some of those college girls can be real whiners.”

“Ever see her again?”

“She came back once, a few months after I did the work, said she needed a place to stay during Spring Break. I was shacked up with Bridget at the time or I might have offered her the couch at my place.”

“She’s not satisfied with the couch.”

“I wouldn’t think so, not a girl like her,” Millie said with a smile. Then the smile faded. “You 

I nodded. “I’ve seen the spider.”

“Moe Ron, Moe Ron, Moe Ron.” Only Millie called me that, and this time the nickname fit. “She’s not much older than your son. You should know better.”

“I should.”

“Where is she now?”

“I left her at the mall,” I said. “There’s no way I’m leaving her alone in my house.”

“At least you got that part right.”


I needn’t have bothered. Mona was waiting for me when I returned home that evening, sitting in my favorite chair with an open beer in her hand, wearing one of my shirts and nothing else. Only a single button kept the shirt closed.

“How many people did you rough up today?” she asked.

“None,” I said. I didn’t bother asking how she’d gotten in because the back door key lay on the coffee table next to the day’s mail, and I knew if I checked my key ring I would be short one key.

“Well, you did all right by me,” she said. “I checked my grades this afternoon. Straight A’s.”
Mona’s English professor had come through. How she’d earned her other high marks I hadn’t a clue until she undid the button and let the shirt fall open.

“I think we should celebrate.”


Lester Beeson caught me on my way to my office the next morning. “Weaver skipped again,” he said. “He’s in the wind.”

I walked up front to find Millie collecting payment from a biker with a face like a Shar-Pei and a fresh tattoo depicting a winged unicorn flying over a rainbow. After his customer walked out the door, Millie explained, “Said it was for his daughter.”

“Can you get free? Weaver’s on the loose again and Lester’s not happy.”

Millie called to Alice and told her to take care of things. We were walking around back of the building to our cars when Mona showed up. She said, “I’m lonely.”

“I have to go,” I told her. “We have a job.”

“I don’t like being left alone,” Mona said. “Let me go with you.”

“You’ll get in the way.”

As she sucked on her lower lip, I glanced at Millie. He shrugged.

I said, “Get in the back.”

She did, and soon we were headed north out of Waco. As we passed through Bellmead, I glanced at Mona in the rearview mirror. “Millie says he did your ink.”

“How do you think I found you?” Mona said. “I saw your sign that night.”


We followed Weaver’s trail until we found him sitting in a well-lit diner in Corsicana, dressed as the ugly broad he’d been when we first encountered him. When he saw us push through the diner’s front door, he dashed into the women’s restroom, a place Millie and I dared not go with so many people watching us.

“I’ll go out back,” Millie said, “make sure he doesn’t climb out a window.”

Mona didn’t say anything. She just pushed past us and marched directly into the women’s restroom. We heard a rather guttural scream of pain, and she came out a moment later with Weaver’s blond wig in one hand and his scrotum in the other. On his tiptoes, Weaver minced along behind her.

The other patrons of the diner stared at the four of us, but none of them interfered as Millie grabbed the back of Weaver’s neck and marched him out to my car. Mona followed. I grabbed Weaver’s purse from the booth where he’d been sitting, dug through it, and tossed some money on the table next to his half-eaten meal. Then I joined the other three outside.
Mona sat in the passenger seat and Millie sat in back with Weaver. After I slipped into the driver’s seat, I turned and looked at our collar. “You’re costing Lester a lot of money,” I said. “I won’t be surprised if he tries to revoke your bond this time.”

“He can’t do that.”

Weaver didn’t deserve a response, so I started the car and pulled out of the parking lot, headed home to Waco. None of us spoke until we handed Weaver off to Lester Beeson, and we walked out of Beeson’s office as he began reading Weaver the riot act.
Millie returned to his tattoo parlor and Mona followed me into my office. As I settled behind my desk, she perched on the corner and did that thing with her bottom lip.

After a bit, she said, “Christmas is coming.”


“What are you getting me?”

“A place to stay isn’t enough?”

“You haven’t even put up a tree!”

“How about we pick one out tonight?”

She liked that idea. “Maybe I should go home and rearrange the living room so we have a place to put it,” she said. “Call me a cab, Moe Ron.”


Later, over beer, I told Millie I couldn’t stay long because I was going Christmas tree shopping. Then we talked about what had happened that afternoon, about how Mona had walked Carl Weaver out of the women’s restroom.

“She’s got hold of yours, too,” Millie said.

I had been about to take a drink, but I stopped. “How’s that?”

“What do you know about Mona?”

“She hired me to—”

“To scare off the previous man in her life.”

“You think I’m taking advantage of her?” I asked. “I’m not in any position of authority. I don’t have any impact on her grades.”

“You don’t? How’d she ace the English class?”

I lowered my beer.

“Maybe you aren’t taking advantage of her,” Millie said, “but she’s sure as hell taking advantage of you.”

I stared at him.

“Christmas tree shopping? Really?”

I glared at him for a moment before I pushed my chair back and stood. “I have to go.”
He waved me away. “Make like an angel and bend over,” he said, “’cause you know you’re gong to take it up the ass when this is all over.”


Mona had moved some of the living room furniture, opening up space by the front window. 

She said, “I think a tree will look nice right there.”

She was right, it did. That evening, after I had the tree secure in the stand, I dug through the closet in the second bedroom for ornaments I hadn’t used since my wife walked out. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but my ex had taken all the good ones, and what remained was inadequate to the task of decoration. I said something to that effect.

“That’s all right,” Mona said. “I think the tree looks fine.”

I strung the only two strands of twinkling lights that still functioned, and we sat on the 
couch staring at them.

As she snuggled into the crook of my arm, I asked, “Why are you here? Why couldn’t you go home for the holidays?”

“My father doesn’t want me around. He says I get in the way.”

“What does your father do that you get in the way?”

Mona didn’t answer my question, but asked one of her own, “What about your son? Why isn’t he here for Christmas?”

I had told her about my divorce, but not about my son. His absence was not by my choice, and I had long since come to terms with our non-existent relationship. I didn’t let her question distract me from my questions. “And why couldn’t you afford to go somewhere else when the dorm closed for the holiday?”

“I don’t get my allowance until the first of the month.”


“I have a trust fund,” she said. “My expenses are paid directly by the trust, and once a month I get some walking-around money. This month, all of it walked around without me.”

“What about friends? Couldn’t you have spent the time with friends?”

Her hand slid up my thigh. “I thought you were my friend.”


Lester Beeson caught my attention as I entered the building two days before Christmas.
“Weaver hung himself.”

“I thought you had his bond revoked.”

“I did,” Beeson said. “Jailers found him in his cell this morning. He was scheduled for sentencing today. He was looking at three to five inside.”

“A man like him wouldn’t last long.”

“He must have known it.”

I had never bothered to ask what Weaver had done because I wasn’t paid to care. Even so, hearing of his suicide put a damper on my day, and my trip to the jewelry store later that day wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped.


The next afternoon, as I prepared to head home to spend Christmas Eve with Mona, a man built like a defensive lineman pushed into my office, interrupting my examination of the Christmas gift I planned to give her. When I saw the butt of a semi-automatic hanging in a shoulder holster beneath his unbuttoned jacket, I shoved the gift in my desk drawer.
He asked, “Do you know Mona Peterson?”

“That depends.”

“Humor me,” he said. He closed the door behind him. “Let’s say you do.”


“So now you forget her.”

“Why’s that?”

“Her father insists.”

“And who’s her father?”

He rested his knuckles on my desk and leaned in close enough that I could smell the onions on his breath.

“Mona likes to toy with stupid fucks like you,” he said. “You get a piece of that young stuff and you think you’re in love. She’ll chew you up, spit you out, and replace you with another stupid fuck. I’m saving you the grief by taking her off your hands now.”

I didn’t appreciate being told what to do, so I made a move. I thrust my hand under his jacket and grabbed the butt of his semi-automatic.

Before the pistol even cleared leather, my visitor drove a fist into the center of my face, smashing my nose and driving me backward. If my office hadn’t been so small, I might have crashed to the floor. As it was, the chair tipped backward and caught between the wall and the desk, leaving me waving my arms and legs in the air like an upended spider.

“I guess it’s already too late for you.” He peeled five Benjamins from his wallet and tossed them on my desk. “This oughtta cover your pain and suffering.”

He was gone before I could right myself, and by the time I reached the front of the building he was nowhere in sight.

Millie stepped out of his shop and joined me at the curb. He looked at the blood still streaming from my nose and put the pieces together. “Your visitor left in a stretch limo.”

“You catch the plate number?”

He shook his head. “No, but when the door opened I saw Mona sitting inside.”

“Anyone else?”

He named a state senator whose last name didn’t match Mona’s. Before I could grasp the implication, he added, “Come into the shop. I’ll get a wet towel and we can clean you up.”
When I returned home that afternoon, Mona’s backpack was gone. So were half the Christmas tree ornaments. I hung her gift from the tree—a ruby-eyed gold spider on a chain—and stared at it as the twinkling Christmas lights reflected eerily from its eyes. Then I drank myself to sleep.


The Friday after Christmas, Millie and I were discussing tattoos and sharing nachos at George’s, half-empty Big O’s in front of us, when Mona’s English professor stopped at our table. I said, “Yeah?”

“Was she worth it?”

I couldn’t answer his question, not then, so he turned and walked away. I watched him take the arm of a woman closer to his own age as they pushed through the door.
Millie and I resumed our conversation about tattoos, specifically about Mona’s.

I said, “That spider was pretty small.”

“I’ve done smaller.”


“The smallest tattoo I ever did was for a writer,” Millie said. “He had me tattoo a period on his ass.”

I didn’t want to know why.