Showing posts with label tom barlow. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tom barlow. Show all posts

Monday, October 11, 2021

The Family Reunion, fiction by Tom Barlow

reprinted from Odds of Survival

Dave Bradley hadn't been this close to losing his sobriety since his last high school reunion three months earlier, where he was drawn to the small cadre of drunks with whom he had first discovered his thirst. But, predictably, his father Johnny had made no move to declutter his house before he passed, leaving Dave to clean out his crap, including a liquor cabinet full of top-end alcohol. His sponsor had volunteered to help him pour it all down the drain, but Dave had laughed him off, confident of his ability to withstand temptation. Now he wished he hadn't. Retirement and the loneliness that accompanied it created a vacuum that pulled him toward his old torment.

Putting off dealing with the liquor, he was working his way down the drawers of an old dresser now in the basement, one that served Johnny as a catch-all. In the bottom drawer he found a rubber-banded set of photos, all of Johnny in his military garb in Korea, hands on the shoulders of two other soldiers, squatting for a card game on the ground, standing on the runway in front of an F-80 Shooting Star. He wished, not for the first time since his father passed, that he'd asked him more about his war experience. Perhaps he'd missed an opportunity to see the son of a bitch as a hero.

To his surprise, there was also an aged envelope with "David" written on it. Inside, he found two more photos. But they were not war scenes.

One of the old black and white snapshots showed his father in front of an apartment building Dave had never seen before, holding hands with a woman and a small child. The woman appeared Latino, short with a dark complexion, a cascade of black hair, deep-set dark eyes, bold chin, and prominent breasts. She looked much younger than his father. 

The child, who appeared to be no more than four, was a thin girl with a star-shaped strawberry birthmark on the side of her throat. The broad grin she wore suggested she was having a marvelous time posing for the photographer.

In the other photo, a large, gnarly oak formed the background for a country graveyard, in which a freshly disturbed patch of earth lay before a new headstone for a Harold Reimer. A shovel stood upright in the dirt. There was no person in the shot, and it must have been taken shortly after dawn as dew hovered above the cornfield in the distance.  

Unable to account for the photos, Dave called his Aunt Grace, his last remaining relative. She told him to bring the photos over, and they'd talk. 


His aunt had an apartment in a retirement village on the outskirts of Topeka. The place always gave Dave the creeps, never knowing what terminal illness might be on display that day. Since he had witnessed Johnny fight the Alzheimer's that ran in his family, he had come to dread his visits as glimpses of his future. However, a steady drizzle meant there were no wheelchair-bound elderly smoking in the flower garden around which the units were arranged. 

He was struck again by the odor that permeated his aunt's rooms, something medicinal tinged with bleach and lilac. His aunt's skin had taken on the same smell, which he inhaled as she kissed her on the cheek.

She had made iced tea, which she knew he drank by the gallon when he was on the wagon. When they were settled on the couch, she said, "Now, let's see those pictures."  

He took the pair out of his shirt pocket and handed them over. "I have no idea who these people are."

She slid her glasses down her nose before peering closely at the one on top. "Oh, my." She placed it on the arm of her chair and looked at the second, which he too had puzzled over. "Who is Harold Reimer?"

"I have no idea." 

She went back to the first shot, her lips a grim line. "Your mother asked me to never tell you about these people. Do you still want to know?"

"I'm 61," Dave said. "I think I can handle about anything."

"Except the booze, right? Anyway, here goes. Your father was working for the railroad back then."

"I thought the pictures were older."

"No, it would have to have been around 1957 or so. He always worked the same trains, from here to Columbus over in Ohio and back. He had layovers on both ends, with time to kill, so he started messing around with this Mexican girl on the Columbus end. She was the housekeeper at the section house where the railroad workers slept. When she got pregnant, he went ahead and married her, although he already had a family back here. Your father was a fool in so many ways."

Dave took a large gulp of his tea, shocked. His father had always been the strictest parent, tolerating no misbehavior, and had nothing but disdain for people of color. "Did Mom know?"

Grace took his hand in hers. "She's the one told me. He used another name, but she found out anyway; the railroad guys had no secrets from one another, and eventually, one of the other wives whose husband had confided in her squealed on him."

"What happened then?"

"Your mom threatened to divorce him and tell the authorities about his bigamy. What convinced him to leave this woman, though, was when Maggie told him she was going to tell his friends he had married a Mexican. There weren't many at the VFW hall that would let him live that down back in those days."

"So he divorced the Mexican?"

"I think he just abandoned her. He bid on a new route and never went back to Columbus. And the woman would have known about his temper, so I'm guessing she never pursued him. Maybe she even went back to Mexico. At least, your mom and dad never heard from her."

"So I have a sister out there somewhere?" As an only child, Dave had longed for a sibling right up to the day his mother told him she'd have another child when hell froze over.

"Half-sister. Maybe. Johnny never acknowledged the kid, so she might have a different father. Now don't go looking for her on the off-chance you're related. I know you, and I know how lonely you've been since your dad passed. Having no family is a burden, for sure, but that doesn't mean you have to embrace Johnny's catting about."


But Dave was too excited to follow his aunt's advice. He had to rein in his imaginings of what having a sister might mean, the camaraderie, the love, mostly based on what he'd seen in television shows. He could even have nieces and nephews by her. And Johnny must have wanted him to make the connection after his death. Why else leave the photos with his name on it?

That was the central question. Johnny had been a complex character, mercurial when he was drinking, and imperious when sober, so Dave was never quite clear how he felt about his father. When Johnny passed there was relief in his grief, nothing like the despair he'd felt when his mother Maggie died. Was it repentance that caused Johnny to leave the photos for him to find, or simply the tidying up of unfinished business?

Still of two minds, he went back to work sorting through his father's things, but now with a purpose. In an old army locker among the lapsed insurance policies, diplomas from grade school, high school and catechism, and appraisals for his mother's jewelry that Johnny sold shortly after her death, Dave found an Ohio driver's license issued to a John Green. The license was from 1955, before any states started adding photos, but the height and weight were the same as his father's, and Green had not needed glasses to drive. Neither had Johnny.

The license listed an address on Bryden Road in Columbus. He pulled up Google Earth and checked out the address. It was now a vacant lot.


Since his retirement a year earlier, Dave, an introvert with unlimited free time, had spent many a drunken hour poking around on the internet until he was proficient. He used it to check the marriage license issues in the archives of the Columbus Dispatch. After pouring through month after month, he found a John Green marrying Paula Garciaparra on April 2nd, 1955. 

Dave was born only 10 days later. 

Further investigation revealed that a daughter, Carole Green, was born to the couple six months later. He spent a couple of bucks on a personal-search internet site which told him there were no Carole Greens in Columbus but delivered the addresses and phone numbers of three C. Greens. As he sat there staring at the phone, trying to screw up the courage to cold-call each to ask the question, he felt that tickle in the back of his throat that, from experience, he knew only vodka would quench. However, the thought of finding new family helped fight off the urge. 

He took a deep breath and picked up the phone. The first two were duds; one Carl Green, one Celeste Green. Neither ever heard of a John or Carole Green or Carole Garciaparra, nor was interested in discussing it further. The third landline had been disconnected, which didn't surprise him; many people were going cellular. Having nothing better to do, Dave decided to drive the twelve hours from Topeka to Columbus and knock on the door of the last Green. 

Knowing that a change in routine presented new temptations to his sobriety, though, he copied down the phone number of the local AA group in case he needed to find a meeting.


 Columbus was a bigger town than he expected; he had thought it was mostly Ohio State University surrounded by supporting housing. The address for the last C. Green was in the suburb of Westerville. He waited until early evening, when most people would be home from work, before driving there. The November weather was chilly, but he had brought only a jean jacket and shivered as he walked up the driveway of the bungalow. The house was in need of paint, with sagging gutters and the original leaky aluminum windows. There was little landscaping to disguise its shortcomings. 

 He cleared his throat a couple of times and wiped his damp palms against his jeans before he rang the doorbell. When no one came to the door, he was about to knock when the porch light came on, although it was not yet dark. A beat later, the door opened to the extent allowed by the chain, and a pair of lips appeared in the crack. 

"What do you want?" The voice was raspy.

"My name is Dave Bradley. I'm looking for a lady who was born Carole Garciaparra, might have grown up as Carole Green. Would you know her?"

"What do you want with her? You a bill collector?"

Dave saw his mistake. "No, nothing like that. I think Carole might be my sister."

A pause. "What makes you think she would be interested in meeting you?"

He took some hope from her reply. "Her father died a month ago. I thought she might want to know." 

"That's the best news I've heard all day." When she shut the door Dave thought he'd been dismissed, but she was merely pulling the chain. The door opened, revealing a woman he guessed to be about his age, thin but sinewy, with rampant hair the color of a dirty mop. There was a hint of Johnny in her face, thin with a wedge-shaped nose and a narrow cleft chin, but her complexion was definitely not Irish. She was wearing a mock turtleneck, above which he could see the last bit of her birthmark. 

She appraised him with a scowl. "Yeah, you look a little like the bastard." She nodded for him to come in. He followed her into the living room, which looked much like his in that no one had spent much time cleaning recently. The smell of cigarettes reminded him all too strongly of the bar where he had spent many an unhappy hour. 

She nodded toward a chair and he took a seat. She sat on the couch, crossed her arms. "So you're the asshole's boy?"

"You mean Johnny? You knew him as John Green."

"I barely knew him at all. All I know is he and my mom ran away when I was four. Is she still alive? Not that I care."

"Your mom? Paula Garciaparra?"

"Yeah. You look a little like her too, you know." She circled her face with a pointed finger.

"I'm afraid there's a misunderstanding. Paula wasn't my mother. I never met the woman."

A look of confusion came over her face. "I don't understand."

"My mom was Maggie Boyd."

Carole slipped down onto the couch. "Let me get this straight. Your dad is Johnny Green, but you had a different mother? When were you born?"


"I was born in 1955. So the asshole was seeing your mom on the side?"

"They'd been married for six years by the time I was born. In Topeka. And stayed married until she died three years ago."

"Holy shit. So what happened to my mother?" Carole cupped her hands and ran them down her face. "They both disappeared on the same day, July 5th, 1959, about a week after my fourth birthday. I always assumed they ran away because of me. I was a pain in the ass as a child, and slow, and too dark to pass as Anglo. I figured my dad was embarrassed by me."

"I suppose you've looked for her."

"Children's Services looked for a while after they abandoned me but never found them. The first Army check I got, I hired a skip tracer, but he never even got a hint of a lead about where she went."

Dave's mind went immediately to the last photo in his pocket. 

"Jesus," she said. "I need a beer. You want one?"

He needed six but didn't want one. But Dave had spent decades convinced that a man who wouldn't drink with him was not to be trusted. And he so wanted her trust.

She noted his hesitancy and said, "What? You too good to drink with me?" 

He could always start over on his sobriety again tomorrow. "Not at all. I'll join you."

Carole returned from the kitchen with a pair of cold Coors, his favorite. He forced himself to sip and could have cried as the cold liquid coursed down his throat. So good. 

"So you were in the army?" he said, looking to distract himself from his shame.

Carole polished off half her bottle in one long pull, then belched. "I did my twenty years training marksmen. You?"

She was wearing an oversize flannel shirt, and he wondered if it concealed a pistol. "Never served."

"Lucky you. Still, I got to retire young, so that's something."

"Marksmen, that's surprising. You must have been one of the first women in that job." His bottle was half empty already.

"I was driven. Once I got away from the houses I grew up in, I couldn't face the idea of going back."

"So you were adopted? After your parents left?"

She laughed bitterly. "I wish. It was all foster homes. No one wanted a beaner kid. So I ended up as a toy for foster parents’ real sons. You?" 

Dave sipped his beer, angry that he was treasuring each swallow. "I can't complain. I was an only child, and my mom believed in education. I got a degree in history and taught at the local high school." Until he was encouraged to take a buyout and ended up sorting packages at UPS.

"Are you married? Kids?"

"No. Almost got married once." If only he hadn't shown up for the ceremony crocked.

She reached into her back pocket and produced a pack of Lucky Strikes and a lighter, tapped one out of the pack, and lit it. "I could have married a soldier, but we would have ended up killing one another."

"Tell me about your mother." He held out two fingers, held apart, and she handed him the pack and her lighter. He pulled out a cigarette, remembering the last time he'd smoked one in 2001. Johnny had smoked right up to the day he forgot that he did. 

He lit it, took a drag, and it was as if he'd never quit that too. He was going to have quite the tale to tell at his next meeting. 

"Mom? Not much to say," Carole said. "I barely remember her, except that she tried to protect me from your father, who was always smacking me if I didn't behave."

"That was Johnny." He was slightly light-headed from the beer and smoke. He pulled the graveyard picture out of his pocket. "You have any idea who this is?"

She took it between her ring and little fingers so that her cigarette was undisturbed and held it near enough her face that he suspected she needed glasses to read. "What's this?"

He explained how he found her, the photos. "That one, I can't account for."

"I can read the headstones. Harold Reimer died June 11th, 1959.  A month before Mom disappeared. You check"

"What's that?" he said.

"A registry of graves and locations. I learned to find missing persons while looking for my mother. Now I do some skip tracing for others, part-time. Enough to keep me in cigarette money.  Wait here."

She placed the photo on the arm of the couch, disappeared down the hallway, and returned a moment later with a laptop. He watched, longing for another beer, as she did the search. "Here he is," she said a minute later. "Union Cemetery in Plain City. That's about ten miles from here." She flipped the photo back to him. "You thinking what I'm thinking?"

His thought was too dark to express. He avoided her gaze.

When he did not respond, she said, "I'm wondering if maybe he killed my mom and buried her in a newly dug grave. The dates work. You think the bastard was capable of murder?"

He remembered all too clearly the time their dog Spot, who had lived chained in the backyard, had barked once too often while Johnny attempted to sleep after working a night shift. He'd heard the shot from his bedroom. 

"I'm afraid so," he said. "You got another beer?"

Dave quickly came to conclude his sister shared the family taste for alcohol. She not only had one, she had a fresh case, and they spent the rest of the evening working through it, sharing stories of their childhoods, his mundane, hers dark. At ten p.m. they ordered a pizza, but when it came neither had an appetite. The photo lay face up on the coffee table and he noticed her eyes returning to it as often as his own. Finally, around one in the morning, when they had run out of beer and were thoroughly drunk, he said, "We're never going to know if we don't."

"What do you mean?"

He knew she knew what he meant, but somebody had to speak the words. "Dig up the grave."

"And why would we do that?"

"That's one way to hide a body, right? Find a grave that's just been filled and dig it partly out, dump in your body, and refill it? Who's going to know?"

"Jesus, you're ghoulish."

"So was Johnny. You got a shovel?"


Dave drove, pleased to find he still had the ability to stay in his lane while shit-faced. They picked up a twelve-pack of beer at a drive-thru on the way. The night was cold but not bitter, and the alcohol and cigarettes provided an inner warmth that he'd almost forgotten. 

They parked his car on a side street and approached the cemetery on foot. Johnny understandably had chosen a grave as far away from the street and its lights as possible, and there were no nearby houses to disturb then. He had expected the air in a graveyard would have some quality that reflected the setting, but it was as clean and crisp as any, suggesting winter was imminent.

"We going to take up the turf, try to replace it?" Carole said.

"That's the plan."  He laid out the plastic tarp he'd found in Carole's garage before grabbing the shovel and beginning to peel up the grass. "She shouldn't be too deep; Johnny was always lazy."

The beer didn't help the work, as he quickly broke into a sweat that the chill November air turned into shivers. It took him about 30 minutes to reach knee depth in a hole about wide and long enough for a body. Carole took the shovel from him and pulled him out of the hole.

"It's my mother we're looking for," she said, taking off her jacket. "Let me finish." 

He opened another beer as he watched her go to work. Her arms, while thin, were muscular, and she shoveled as though she'd made a career of it. 

The only sounds were the rasp of the shovel and the rain of soil landing on the tarp. His stupor was broken only by fantasies about a future in which he and Carole could function like brother and sister, each having the other's back. The alcohol thing was going to be a problem, though. He'd been counseled against socializing with a drunk, and he'd lost many friends over the years when they went sober. Maybe they could dry out together.

Carole stopped once for a beer and a smoke. Since she massed maybe half of what he did and had matched him drink for drink, he presumed she was at least as smashed as he was. He was suddenly struck with the pathos of what they were doing and began to laugh. 

His sister scowled. "What's so funny?"

He regained control with difficulty. "This is as close to a family reunion as I've ever had."

"One brother and he turns out to be a comedian," she said and jumped back into the hole. 

It only took another 15 minutes before, at a depth of three feet, the shovel bit into something that crunched. Carole knelt in the dirt, and with her gloved hands, began to pull the clay soil aside, revealing the mouth of a skull. Dave shone the flashlight onto it, and both upper front teeth gleamed with gold. 

Carole sat back. "Oh, shit. Mom had those teeth. She always joked they were her nest egg."

He squatted next to her, reached out to place his hand on her shoulder. "I'm so sorry." He began to cry as though it were his loss too. He always was a weepy drunk.

She handed him the shovel and pulled herself out of the grave. She was crying too as she picked her jacket up from the ground. He assumed she was going to put it on, was waiting to hug her after she did, but instead, she pulled a pistol out of her pocket and leveled it at him. 

"What?" he said, raising the shovel blade to his chest. "You can't kill me. I'm your brother."

"Like hell you are." Her eyes were wide, fierce. "I look at you, all I see is Johnny. It's too late to make him pay for what he's done, but I can at least make sure there's no trace of him left in this world." He could tell she was about to shoot, and with a quick jerk, he raised the shovel to shield his face. 

The bullet bounced off the shovel with a loud peal, knocking the blade into his face. He could feel the snap as his nose broke, and he doubled over in pain.

Through his anguish, though, he heard Carole collapse at his feet. He looked down to find her lying face-up, trembling uncontrollably, and he could see where the reflected bullet had entered her head through her left eye. One hand to his bleeding nose, he kicked the gun away and searched her pockets for her cell phone to call for help, but by the time he found it, she had stopped breathing. 

He knelt between her and the skeleton for a long time, a handkerchief to his face. There seemed to be no reaction to the shot from the houses closest to the graveyard, so he figured he had time to bury Carole with her mother and getaway. He wasn't sure the cops would believe his story, the words of a drunk. 

But there was that twelve-pack of beer to finish first, so he sat next to his sister working on it and staring at her body. He held her pistol in his hand, wondering if he shouldn't just join her. 

He tried to imagine what his father must have felt that night. He could only think of what he would not have felt. Compassion. Regret. Love. None of these had been in Johnny's vocabulary.

When he finally heard the caretaker arrive at his office shortly after dawn, he put down the pistol, took his sister's hand, and waited to be discovered. 

His thirst was worse than ever, and it was just as certain as a bullet.

Tom Barlow is an Ohio author of short stories, novels and poetry. Many of his best noir short stories have been collected in Odds of Survival and his crime novel Blood of the Poppy, is available on Amazon. He enjoys visiting the dark in his writings but is grateful he doesn't live there. Learn more at

Monday, January 21, 2019

Desert Justice, fiction by Tom Barlow

Jacqueline Kyser, the attorney, and Carter Reed, the litigant, were cruising down Grandview Avenue in Pittsburgh via Google Earth, prospecting for their next victim. Outside, December snow spat against the window of Jacki's office in downtown Philadelphia, but the pictures of Pittsburgh on the computer screen had been taken during the summer. The contrast made Carter feel even colder, right down to the legs that he left back in Iraq.

"There," Jacki said, pointing the cursor at the Anthracite Steakhouse, in an old strip of brick two-stories hanging on the bank overlooking the Ohio River. She zoomed in. "No ramp, and the sidewalk outside has a bad case of frost heave. Architectural barriers. Should be good for five grand."

"It's your call."

"It's your name on the lawsuit," Jacki said, tapping her finger on the desk. "I want you to be comfortable with it."

Carter thought for a moment. The more drive-by suits they filed, the less comfortable he was with the whole process. Sure, Jacki had put a hundred thousand dollars in his pocket over the last year, the short end of the 40/60 split, but he couldn't help but wonder if he was doing a disservice to other disabled vets, making a mockery of the American with Disabilities Act. He had been an idealist, back when he first donned a uniform, but that had gone hollow since his injury and the discovery that his family and his countrymen didn't give a shit about him anymore. Now he had little to live for except the nuisance suit scam and his girlfriend.

Still, what would Ashley say if the gravy train suddenly came to a stop? She had her heart set on Jamaica this February. "Let's go for it," he said.

Jacki continued panning down the street, seeking other victims. She discounted an antiques shop, a nail boutique, a hair salon, and the Aquarius Coffee House as too poor to sue. To his surprise, she stopped at a strip club on the opposite side of the street, Cooters, a large one-story wood-frame building painted genital pink. "Have you ever been in one of these places?"

"Not since I hooked up with Ashley," Carter said, remembering with embarrassment his last lap dance, before Iraq, when he still had a lap. Before he'd learned how some clubs treated their women.

He was a little uncomfortable talking about sex with Jacki, who, three years after her divorce, gave no signs she had any interest in the subject. Not that he was attracted to her. There was something mannish about her face, perhaps because it was framed with hair that hung straight and limp, something most women would have addressed with a better cut or set. Her oversized glasses, with thick tangerine frames, did nothing to soften her indelicate appearance. She even walked with a heft that most women would find embarrassing.

"I was in one last week for the first time," she said, "on the south side–the Goose and Gander. Intended as verbs, I think." She caught his raised eyebrows. "Bridal shower, and the bride was worried about where the bachelor party was going to end up. Anyway, they were advertising private dances, which took place in a room backstage. At the top of a set of stairs." She rocked back in her office chair. "They seem to do a brisk business, lots of cash passing hands. Why should someone disabled be denied that opportunity just because the owner is too cheap to install a ramp?"

Carter shook his head. "You want to sue them because a cripple can't get his rocks off there?"

"I don't think we'll phrase the suit quite that way. But yes, you have the gist of the filing."

"As long as I don't have to research it firsthand. It's too sleazy for me."

"Gee, aren't you the sensitive guy. No worries, Tom Babbage was an investigator for the law firm I worked for before I went out on my own. He'd be delighted to check it out for us."

"You're going to buy him a lap dance?"

"My accountant is going to freak when he sees that business deduction," she said with a faint smile.


Ashley picked him up outside Jacki's office as planned, at 5 p.m. While he could drive the van, equipped with hand controls, it was so much easier for her to escort him. Once he was safely inside, his chair wheels locked to the floor, she took off for their new apartment in downtown Philly, in the 1919 Market building near the Mütter Museum.

"I hope your day was better than mine," she said. "The STD clinic nurse called off and I had to fill in. I've seen enough oozing dicks for a lifetime."

"Funny you should bring that up," he said, and told her about the lawsuit against Cooters they were about to file.

"Just as long as they don't pay you off in sex," she said. "On another subject, I had a chance at lunch to price out our vacation. That all-inclusive resort will cost us around three grand, not including air fare. It's supposedly full access. They even have a cement ramp that goes down through the beach to the ocean. I need your credit card to make the reservations."

He was profoundly sick of dealing with ice and snow already and had yet to buy the woman a Christmas present. And she deserved something nice; beyond the deep affection he felt for her, for a guy with no legs she was a godsend. He pulled out his wallet, grabbed his Visa card and handed it forward to her.

"Thanks, Sweetie," she said.

"Put a bow on the reservations and put it under the tree," he said.

She stuck out her lower lip. "I was hoping for something sparkly."

He didn't respond, aware that she was hinting at an engagement ring. But the current scam couldn't last forever, and he didn't want to end up like his bum of a father, living off the woman he had come to despise simply because he needed her so badly.


Jacki called him a week later to tell him she had the paperwork for the lawsuit against Cooters ready for his signature. And a lot more. Tom Babbage had discovered that the owner was a Vic Orlov of Philadelphia, who apparently owned a string of such clubs along U.S. 76 from the Ohio River to the Delaware. His Eros Enterprises corporate office was less than a mile from Jacki's place, adjacent to one of his clubs, Jiggles. She'd dispatched Babbage to check out each club, and he'd reported the same kind of violations in all but one.

"You think this is your chance?" Carter said. Jacki had told him weeks earlier she was looking for a big score. She owed alimony and child support to her ex, and they'd just discovered the kid, Angelina, had a heart condition that required surgery.

"We hit a big corporation, they'll bury us in legal proceedings. This guy's about the right size to be able to come up with the cash to pay the suit without stonewalling us in court."

"He could be mobbed up."

Jacki picked at a broken fingernail. "You're thinking of the old days. Today these guys are businessmen with angel investors and spreadsheets."

Carter often thought Jacki overestimated the appeal of her settlement offers, but they'd never gone to court yet, so he had to trust her on this one.


Carter was preparing to leave for the Iraq Vet's group that met at St. Francis Church every Wednesday evening to talk about their experiences in the service, which occasionally triggered the PTSD that ran through the group like a sniper's bullet, when his best friend Ryan Apple phoned. He invited Carter to join him at The Patriot tavern a few blocks away instead, where Ryan hung out virtually every night.

They usually spent part of the night arguing over who would pick up the tab, since Ryan was convinced Carter had saved his life by absorbing the brunt of the blow from an IED wired to a woman in a burka. She had been waiting for them to pass in a street market in Ramadi before she blew herself up. Carter refused to take credit for what had been simply blind luck. He only regretted not taking enough of the shrapnel embedded in the bomb to keep it from blowing off Ryan's scalp and half his face. He hadn't seen his friend without the Phillies ball cap jammed low on his head and his shirt collar turned up since the bandages came off a year earlier.

Ryan had staked out a seat at one of the few low tables so they didn't have to look up and down at one another. "You got a head start on me?" Carter said.

Ryan pointed to the three empties on the table and shrugged.

"You get any work this week?" Carter said. Ryan worked framing houses as a day laborer when his hangover would allow it.

"There's this charity over on the south side teaching immigrants rough-in work," Ryan said between swallows. "Now there's about a million Puerto Ricans waiting outside Home Depot in the morning every day. The contractors won't even make eye contact with an Anglo."

"So what you going to do?" Carter was concerned; he'd talked his friend out of eating his gun once already since they were discharged.

"Mom and Dad said I could move back in with them, but why the fuck would I want to live in Wheeling again? There aren't any jobs within a hundred miles, unless you want to mine coal. Since we got back, I can't handle tight spaces."

"You're good with your hands, man. A guy who can defuse bombs ought to be able to find some kind of sit-down job."

"Remember when they showed us that bomb-unit robot prototype? You got a robot to defuse a bomb, there's no reason you can't get a robot to do your sit-down job. Shit, my last surgeon was a robot. How about you? You still filing lawsuits?"

Carter told him about the suit against Orlov and the strip clubs. It brought a big, albeit lopsided, smile to Ryan's face. "Shit. Maybe you'll end up owning one of the clubs. Wouldn't that be cool?"

"I knew this girl in high school, Penny Manos," Carter said, "got herself a job in a strip club in Baltimore. The last time I ran into her, shortly before I was deployed, she had a dope habit, an STD, two black eyes and a baby she didn't know who the father was. Social Services was trying to take it away from her."

He was reluctant to confess that Penny was his half-sister, now walking the streets of L.A. and out of contact for the past three years. As a teen, he'd stood by as their father tried to beat the rebellion out of her, and he still carried that unpaid debt with him.


Luckily Ashley was in the middle of one of her twelve-hour shifts at the hospital a week later when the buzzer from the lobby of his apartment building went off.

"Who's there?" he said.

"I have a message from Vic Orlov," came the reply in the voice of a young woman.

Carter was about to take his afternoon pain meds, and that need momentarily fought with curiosity. The latter won. Carter allowed her to enter the building. While she was on her way up, however, he retrieved his military pistol, a Sig Sauer M18, from the bedside stand.

When she knocked, he chambered a round before cracking the door open a few inches to check her out. The young woman was tall, willowy, with hair the color of rain on a black Cadillac and a face any soldier would be proud to carry in his wallet. She was wearing a sable fur coat that ended at her ankles and a smile that reflected the winter sun.

"Hi," she said. "Are you Carter Reed?"

"That's me," he said. "What can I do for you?"

"Actually, it's the other way around," she said and opened her coat. Underneath, she wore not a stitch, and what the coat had concealed was magnificent. "The owner of the clubs you're suing sent me and told me to ask you what I could do for you. Anything you like. Anything. You going to let me in?"

When he first hooked up with Ashley, he'd thought she was about as good a catch as he was likely to find given his condition. She was loyal and not stupid and diligent enough to hold a job, but one thing she wasn't was sensual, not like this woman.

"Orlov sent you? What's the catch?" he said, rolling back to allow her to enter.

She stepped inside, leaned over and ran a nail up the zipper of his slacks. "He wants you to understand that he can be a nice guy, or he can be a not so nice guy. I represent the nice part. Now, why don't you show me where the bedroom is?"

Carter struggled mightily with the knowledge that many, if not most, hookers were in the trade against their will, enslaved by dope or threats of violence, like his half-sister. But there was a hunger in him, too, as though making love to such a stunning woman might fool him into believing, if just for the moment, that he was not half a man.

Her last words when she left an hour later, addressed to him as he lay spent on his bed, was, "Vic said this is your only carrot. Next time it's the stick. You really won't like the stick." She blew him an air kiss as she donned her coat and left.

He watched her from the bedroom window as she exited the building and got into the back seat of a Lincoln waiting at the curb, already cursing himself for his weakness.


He and Jacki were due to meet the next morning to review the steps taken and plan those to come. The more Carter knew her, the more he respected her ability to read him, so he didn't even try to pretend the episode with Orlov's messenger hadn't happened. He expected her to dress him down severely, which he probably deserved, but instead she just shook her head, a look of equal parts compassion and disappointment on her face.

"I can't begin to understand what it must be like for you, dealing with your injuries. So I won't criticize. But I do wish you'd keep it in your pants from now on. OK?"

"You're not worried about her threat?" Carter said.

"I'm not happy about it, but we don't really have any choice in the matter now." She dug through the file on the Cooters lawsuit and handed him a business card for a Kayla Evans, investigator with the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office.

"Who's this?" he said.

"Interesting visit I had yesterday, at her instigation. It seems that the AG's office is hot to bust Orlov for procuring girls from Central America against their will and forcing them into the sex trade."

"Holy shit. That's awful. But what's that got to do with ADA lawsuits?" He tried to remember the expression on the face of the woman who had visited him. She had not appeared to be conflicted about her actions, but maybe she was just a good actor. Maybe she was just as exploited as the girls hawking blow jobs on the street corner. The shame he had been carrying came out in a blush.

Jacki didn't seem to notice. "They've been watching his cash flow, and he's very careful about covering up his illicit income. But if he has to come up with half a mill, they think he'll have to dip into his under-the-table cash to pay it off, and that's when they'll pounce."

"Still, what's to stop us from dropping the case? I don't like being threatened."

Jacki slumped in her chair. "She was pretty clear with me that my license to practice in Pennsylvania would be painstakingly reviewed if I didn't play along; they don't like attorneys who live on nuisance lawsuits, as a rule. Even if I'm clean, they could damage my reputation just by calling me into question."

"They play hardball in Philly, huh?"

"Look, I know I don't have anything to hang over your head, but I'm begging you stay with me." She bit her lower lip.

The army had drilled into his head the idea of the team, how you didn't abandon your buddy just because the bullets were flying, and some residual part of that training still guided his thinking. He couldn't walk away from Jacki now, not after all she had done for him. "I'm in."

"Good. I'm more eager than ever to press ahead after the stunt Orlov tried with you."

"It wasn't exactly waterboarding," he said.


Orlov waited for less than a week to demonstrate his stick. Carter and Ashley had just exited the elevator in the underground garage, intending to head to Vista Peru for dinner, when a tall ski-masked figure dressed in jeans and a leather jacket loitering next to the elevator door intercepted them. He said, "Orlov told you to drop the lawsuits, asshole," as he stepped around Carter, flicking open an expandable baton, and swung viciously at Ashley's left leg. Carter heard the snap as a bone in her lower leg broke. She shrieked and fell to the cement. Furious at his helplessness, Carter attempted to whip his wheelchair around and take the man's legs out from under him, but instead their assailant grabbed the handles of his wheelchair and gave him a shove, sending him careening down the slight grade to the parking area. Carter managed to stop himself and turn just in time to see the man calmly swing again, breaking her other leg.

Carter could only watch, defenseless, as the man jogged out of the garage into the darkness, Ashley's screams in his wake.

By the time the ambulance arrived, he'd had time to gather his wits enough to realize that the cops would be just as likely to investigate him as they would the attacker should he tell them the whole story. To his humiliation he chose instead to claim the attack was unprovoked, inexplicable. When Carter was done giving his statement, the cop poked her cap up so she could look him in the eye and said, "The guy never even asked for your wallet? Look, pal–you decide to can the bullshit and tell us what really happened, maybe we could do something for you. But this?" She held up the written report, tore off the top copy and gave it to him. "Might as well use it to light your Christmas candles."

As he wheeled away from the cop, he caught the eyes of Ashley, seated in the ambulance as they applied air casts to her legs. He could see in her glare that she rightly blamed him.

He followed the ambulance in his van. At the emergency room, he asked to be allowed to accompany Ashley into triage, but to his disappointment she told the nurses to keep him away. By the time she did permit him to join her, she was in long casts on both legs. A wheelchair had already been delivered to her room.

She met him with a scowl as he wheeled into her room. "How you doing?" he said, stopping just out of arm's length. "I'm going to hire a live-in nurse, while you recover."

"Fuck you," Ashley said. "My Dad's on the way. I'm moving home. I know this was your fault, all that shit about the strip clubs. It's bad enough I end up in a wheelchair like you; I'm not about to risk it ends up permanent."


On the way back to his apartment he phoned Jacki and clued her in to the attack. "You better watch out. You could be next."

There was a long pause before she responded. "Maybe we should just give it up. I can rebuild my reputation; nothing I've done is exactly illegal."

But the loss of his girlfriend had brought Carter to a new frame of mind. "Bullshit. If Orlov thought he was going to scare me off, he made a bad mistake. In Iraq every person I passed could have been a bomber. So now I'm supposed to be afraid of a guy with a stick? I say we up the lawsuit to two mill."

"If we change anything, the court date gets pushed back. Let's keep it as is and I'll ask Tom Babbage to provide a body guard for a little while."

"I don't need one."

"I meant for me. I know you're the hero type, doesn't need help."

"Well, I could use somebody to gas up my van, but yeah, you're right."


The first thing Carter did when he arrived home was grab his pistol, cursing himself for lacking the foresight to arm himself earlier. He was pissed that he had initially bought Jacki's assertion that Orlov wouldn't break the rules of polite society; he'd learned in Baghdad the veneer of civilization was no thicker than a skin graft.

There was a fury inside him that Ashley had helped contain, but he realized now it had simply been smoldering and was now reborn unchecked. It echoed all the way back to the sound of his father's fist to his sister's stomach, to the notion of brainwashed women in burkas wired with explosives. He spent the rest of the evening with a bottle of Jack Daniels lusting for revenge more visceral than a lawsuit.

At 1:00 a.m. he made a phone call to Ryan Apple.

"Yeah?" his friend said. Carter was pretty sure the slur in Ryan's voice was Yuengling, not sleepiness.

"Hey, buddy. You took apart a lot of bombs. You suppose you could build one?"


Carter came to his senses the next morning, writing off his request for a bomb as a drunken bit of stupidity. So Ryan surprised the hell out of him when he called back three days later to tell him he'd obtained the necessary materials. Carter hadn't known that there was in fact an active community of ex-soldiers, bomb squad guys, who brought their interest in explosives back with them, and who got together from time to time to blow shit up for the fun of it. He also didn't know that, with relatively little work, Ryan could come up with a chunk of Semtex and a fuse.

Carter jumped at the chance to pay Orlov back, and also possibly help the girls the man had enslaved. He described to Ryan what he needed the package to look like, and within another day, his doorbell rang. There stood a strangely sober Ryan holding a cardboard box.

Carter let him in, offered him a beer. He wondered when Ryan refused it.

Ryan set the box down gingerly on the kitchen counter and said, "This makes us even, OK? You saved my life, now I put mine on the line for you."

"Don't worry," Carter said. "Nobody will ever tie this back to you."

"I trust you, but I do want to know the plan."

When Carter laid it out for him, Ryan said, "How do you plan to get into the office without them knowing you'd been there?"

Carter reached into his pocket and pulled out a keyring with a dozen keys on it that he'd bought on eBay. Unlike regular door keys, these keys were all cut down such that the serrated edge was flat, except for a few small humps. "You ever use a bump key?"

"Don't tell me you know how to pick a lock."

"Not exactly. But with the right bump key, you can open most locks. All you need to do is put it in, pull it back out one click, put some rotational pressure on the key while you smack the end with a hammer. The pins in the lock jump up just long enough to open, and it doesn't leave a mark."

"How the fuck did you learn to do that?"

"YouTube videos. I practiced on the door to my apartment."

At that point, Ryan said, "I'll take you up on that beer. It may be the last one we have together for a long time."


Carter was lucky enough to score a parking spot across the street from the offices of Eros Enterprises the next afternoon, which were in a brick one-story building with narrow fixed windows that had been replaced with glass blocks. From there he could watch people come and go. Twice during the afternoon, a portly man in a white shirt with sleeves too short for him exited Jiggles next door with a black bag and carried it to the office of Eros Enterprises. Carter assumed it was the cash take from the club, leading him to believe there was a safe in the office. He had no interest in the money but wondered if he might use it to cover up what he planned to do.

Promptly at 5:00 p.m., three people left the offices: Orlov, the woman who had seduced him, and a tall, broad-shouldered man who he recognized by his build and the way that he moved as the man who broke Ashley's legs. Orlov, last out, locked the door behind him. None of them had appeared to arm a security system. He guessed they didn't want the police called in case of a break-in, fearing what they might find.

Carter returned home and caught a few hours of on-again/off-again sleep before rising at 4:00 a.m. to return to Orlov's office. This time, he could park out front. He exited the van in the quiet of late night and wheeled up to the door, Ryan's package on his lap.

The door was solid wood with a heavy-duty lock. He had to try three bump keys before he found one that fit. Thirty seconds later he was inside.

He had been worried that the layout might not single out Orlov's desk, but to his relief the whole place was open space with one enclosed office at the back, surely belonging to the boss. Carter clamped a flashlight in his teeth as he wheeled the length of the office only to find that the door to Orlov's office was too narrow for his chair. Disgruntled, he lowered himself to the floor, and, shoving the package before him, propelled himself with both hands around the desk until he could, by rolling the desk chair back, access the desk well. He turned on the cell phone attached to the bomb that would serve as a trigger, which he planned to set off from his van once Orlov arrived at the office that morning. He tore off the paper covering the two-sided tape that would attach the bomb to the underside of the desk and pressed it in place. There was a heavy floor safe next to the desk, and he hoped the blast might open it, just to confuse the cops about his motive.

He was halfway back to his wheelchair, however, when he heard a key slide into the front-door lock. Shocked that anyone would be arriving so early in the morning, he turned off his flashlight and slid under the desk. From there he could peer out through a gap in the modesty panel. Two people had entered: Orlov, and the man who assaulted Ashley, who he assumed was the man's bodyguard. Both were holding pistols at the ready. Orlov said, "I don't care if the door was still locked. The silent alarm didn't go off on its own."

It only took Orlov a moment to spot Carter's wheelchair. "What the fuck is that doing here?" He stepped toward the office.

Having dwelt on death for the past two years with a kind of yearning, Carter was not surprised at how blithe he felt as his avenue of escape disappeared. This was his chance to stand for Penny and Ashley and any other women who had suffered on his watch. He slid his cell phone out of his pocket, punched in the number of the phone attached to the bomb, and held his thumb above 'send'.

Orlov entered the office and found Carter waiting, back against the safe. "Good morning," Carter said, facing the barrel of Orlov's pistol.

"Who the fuck are you, dead man?" Orlov said as the bodyguard came into the office to see who Orlov had the drop on.

"That's the guy filing the lawsuits," his bodyguard said.

Orlov smiled. "No shit? This is better than I expected. What the hell do you think you're doing, breaking in here? And in a wheelchair to boot?" He checked with his bodyguard to make sure he understood the humor in the situation. "I shoot you as an intruder now, the cops won't blink an eye."

"My drill sergeant spent most of basic trying to convince us that killing terrorists half a world away was going to make our country better," Carter said. "Turns out, the real enemy is much closer to home."

Orlov's eyes narrowed. "What? You think I'm a bad person? I'm just a businessman, pal, providing what the customers want. The cops can't touch me." He turned to his bodyguard for confirmation.

"One thing I learned in Iraq," Carter said. "Desert justice doesn't depend on a judge or a jury. There's nothing but explosives and suicide bombers willing to die for what they think is right."

Before Orlov could make sense of his words, Carter held up his cell phone and dropped his thumb on 'send'.

Tom Barlow is an Ohio writer. Other works of his may be found in anthologies including Best American Mystery Stories 2013, Dames and Sin and Plan B Omnibus and periodicals including Pulp Modern, Red Room, Heater, Plots With Guns, Mystery Weekly, Needle, Thuglit, Manslaughter Review, Switchblade and Tough (Yay!). His novel I'll Meet You Yesterday and crime short story collection Odds of Survival are available on Amazon.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Leave the World a Better Place, by Tom Barlow

The first one went better than she could have expected. The right rifle, a .260 Remington with a Zeiss Conquest scope, which she had demanded when they divvied up her father's estate years before because she knew it had the least recoil. A comfortable place to sprawl on the floor of her van. The sun down, the parking lot of the Walmart nicely lit by halogen spotlights, her van parked in the dark beyond. A six-pack of hard lemonade in the cooler at her elbow.

Katie waited an hour for a deserving target, watching through the hole she'd bored for the scope in the back door of the van. He turned out to be a young, heavy-set man with thick black hair, most of his face obscured by the bushy beard extending well up onto his cheeks and a Red Sox baseball cap pulled down to rest on the top of his glasses. He caught her attention by scanning the parking area before reaching down between his seats, coming up with a handicapped parking pass, and clipping it onto his rear-view mirror as he pulled into a handicap spot.

She removed the plug from the lower of the two holes, the one for the barrel. Through the top opening, she located the driver's door of the car in her scope. The young man opened the door, jumped to his feet effortlessly, and shoved it shut with his hip as he took his first long strides towards the store.

She squeezed the trigger. When the rifle fired, the clap left her ears ringing. "Wear your ear protection, moron," she reminded herself, irritated.

She put the caps back in the holes in the hatch door and raised up to look through the rear window. The man lay face-down on the asphalt, blood splattered beneath him in a long arc reaching an abandoned electric cart near the curb. An elderly couple who had just exited the store had dropped to the ground with their arms over their heads. An SUV swerved around the body to grab a parking spot near the door.

Katie wrapped the rifle up in the quilt, crawled awkwardly between the seats to the front of her van and pulled away from the scene, slowly, cautiously. Her heart was beating a drum roll, and the air inside the van tasted of gunpowder.


She finished the six-pack before she could fall asleep that evening. Her bladder woke her long before she'd rested enough though, and after the trip to the bathroom she accepted that further sleep was not possible.

She made a pot of coffee, took her blood pressure, cholesterol and pain meds, choked down a large tablespoon of peanut butter for protein, and turned on the television for some company. Deborah had always watched the news in the morning, and Katie found it a habit she didn't want to break.

A young black reporter in a sports coat too heavy for the humid summer weather stood at the edge of the Walmart parking lot, breathlessly laying out the timing and sequence of events. The actual crime scene seemed overwhelmed by the comings and goings of police, fire, Homeland Security, news cameramen, city officials, and finally, the FBI. It looked to her like a couple of acres of parking had been cordoned off with yellow tape which sagged between light poles and billowed in the breeze. Nothing he said suggested she had been seen.

Katie examined her emotions as the reporter conjectured about the origin of the fatal bullet. Guilt? Very little. The man had been able-bodied, taking up a handicap space, the kind of selfish prick that had forced her mom to walk from remote parking even when her emphysema was at its worst. Excitement? That seemed to have dissipated quickly the previous evening. Satisfaction? More like an itch that had been thoroughly scratched but would most likely return as she continued on with the plan. Pain? Still there, mostly in her ribs. She took another Percocet, wondering when her oncologist would permit her to move up to harder drugs. He seemed to be holding that out as a reward for applying for hospice.


She didn't try to pull herself together until after lunch, in preparation for her appointment with her shrink, Eric. The mirror disappointed again. She had hair once more, but it had grown back coarse, like corn shocks after a month in the Thanksgiving display she used to hang on the front door of the urban two-story she and Deborah had shared. Her skin, once creamy, was growing increasingly transparent, so that late in the day she could track the network of veins and arteries underneath. Even the blue in her eyes seemed muddied. The only part she found pleasing was her cheekbones, much sharper after the weight loss, high enough that she looked faintly Native American.

She picked the cheeriest blouse in her closet, a polyester thant felt like silk in her hands, a fuchsia and sky-blue pattern. It momentarily improved her mood, but the adult diaper she donned brought her back down.


"Tell me about your week," Eric said, seated beside her on his long leather couch.

Katie fixed her gaze on the fat white candle he always lit at the start of their sessions, leaned back in the couch and threw one arm on top to take pressure off her ribs. "I'm trying to do what you said–work on acceptance. Still not sleeping worth a damn. I haven't seen Deborah or Glory Beth for a month."

"How do you feel about your daughter now? Last time, you were furious about the things she said to the judge."

"I keep reminding myself she's only 15. That helps."

"You were also angry at your partner. Have you come to terms with her behavior too?"

Katie thought the word 'terms' gave her a great deal of latitude. "I'm working on that."

"Hmm," he said. "Are you still working?" He wrote something, but kept the folder tilted away from her so she couldn't see it. She figured it was something like "Agitated, fatigued."

"I had three days of temp work at a call center downtown. They didn't want me back. Evidently, I don't have a warm voice."

"How do you feel about working menial jobs? With your background in management?"

She rubbed both eyes with a pinch of her right hand. "Acceptance, right? Nobody hires cancer patients. I understand that. So I work on appreciating whatever comes along. It beats sitting at home waiting to die."

Eric wrote some more. "You've had a great deal to accept recently," he said. "Anger is normal. It might show up in ways you don't expect. Try to identify those impulses that derive from that anger and stop yourself from acting on them. In times of personal crisis, misplaced anger can drive a wedge between you and your loved ones."

Katie held back from saying the first thing that came to mind; it was already too late.


Deborah had made her a cup of chai the afternoon of the emancipation hearing a month earlier, after their daughter Glory Beth had been finally pried away from them by Deborah's born-again bitch sister Elaine and her brother-in-law Stuart.

"You're going to stroke out if you don't watch it," Deb said, stroking Katie's neck lightly. The fingers felt like steel wool.

Katie had expected to come away from the hearing in tears, not with the seed of anger that now burned within her. But their daughter had adopted a pernicious attitude over the past two years thanks to the harping of Elaine about the ungodly relationship between Katie and Deborah. It had surfaced again that morning when Glory Beth's testimony dwelt on Deborah's licentious lifestyle. And the judge had forbidden them from even approaching their daughter for the time being, so she couldn't challenge Glory Beth's behavior.

"I told you Elaine was going to bring up that article," Katie said bitterly. She was unsure what angered her more; Deborah's repeated infidelity or the fact she had blogged it, claiming that her sexual freedom was an important example to set for their daughter, encouraging her to transcend the repressive mores of her parents' generation.

"The judge was a troglodyte," Deb replied. "Sometimes you just have to make a stand, even if it causes you pain in the short run." When she tried to put her arm around Katie she slapped it away.

"I can't stand to have this argument ever again. I'm moving out."

"We've been together almost twenty years. You can't just throw that away."

"As far as I can tell, you throw it away every time you walk out of here to meet your lovers."


Katie still read the newspaper, curious about the future despite her prognosis. Daily delivery was one of the first things she'd arranged when she moved into the tiny efficiency apartment in a neighborhood quickly on its way to becoming a barrio for immigrants from Central America. She circled an article in the Metro section about a Tom Abalo, a forty-year-old brick mason who had just been arrested for driving drunk for the tenth time. This time he'd clipped a boy on a bicycle who ended up losing a leg. Appallingly, Abalo was free on bail, even though he'd been forbidden from driving since his fourth conviction.

He still had a land line, so she was able to bring up his address from the White Pages. Googling his name provided a photo of him with a couple of proud homeowners posed in front of their new brick patio.

Luckily, her beat up van, which she and Deb had kept only because it was handy for hauling Deb's pottery to weekend shows, did not look out of place in Abalo's neighborhood, where virtually every driveway sported a panel van advertising a construction or repair service. She parked down the street where she had a clear view of his house from the floor of the van. The sun had set, and despite the heat, she was cold at her core, so she snuggled into the sleeping bag they had bought for the women's retreat where Deb's infidelity had found its first legs.

She put a stick of gum in her mouth and waited; although she had zero appetite, the chewing gave her the illusion of eating, and she was content with illusion at the moment. With all the opiates, food lost velocity in her colon and could be coaxed into passing through with only the greatest difficulty.

While there were no streetlights in this development, many of the houses had gas lights shining on their sidewalks, and the soft glow gave just enough illumination to frame anyone coming out of a house. She waited, and waited, until at just after 10:00 p.m. when Abalo walked out of his house, jumped in the truck in the driveway, and backed out. Katie started the van. When the truck passed her, she followed from a distance. As she expected, he drove less than a mile to a bar in a strip mall on Westerville Road, Jack's Lounge.

She figured he was there for quite a spell, so she took the opportunity to hit the McDonald's down the road to change diapers and was back on post, parked in the lot of a closed window repair shop across the road, when he came out of the bar at 1:00 a.m. He was in the company of two other drunks, but fortunately they peeled off, got in another pickup and left before Abalo, walking unsteadily, reached his. The shot was a piece of cake, although the sound echoed for a couple of seconds from the glass storefronts of the strip mall.

She wove her way home via back roads to avoid any traffic cams and arrived by 1:30 a.m. Her ribs were aching brutally thanks to the hours spent on the hard floor of the van, but the sense of retribution made the pain endurable.


She had fallen into a restless sleep on her futon late that morning when the doorbell rang. She'd told no one except her ex-boss Bev Crosley where she was living, so she was expecting her when she opened the door. Only at the last moment did she think to wonder if it could be a cop, a bit of obliviousness that surprised her.

However, it was neither. Instead, there stood Deborah holding a fruit bouquet of chocolate-dipped prunes. There was no contrition on the woman's face, but Katie couldn't remember ever seeing her ex-wife contrite. Or embarrassed, for that matter. She wore the faint smile she always did, like she saw something everyone else didn't.

She stepped aside so Deb could enter. She'd forgotten already how much taller her ex was than her, willowy, all the way to hair which moved like sea grass in the lightest of breezes. She had always loved running her fingers through Deb's hair.

Deb placed the bouquet on the counter that divided the living room from the kitchen. "These still work on your constipation?"

"There's such a thing as knowing one another too well," Katie said, taking a seat on one of her bar stools. "What are you doing here? And how did you find me?"

Deb took a seat on the other bar stool, so that their knees almost touched. Katie scooted back.

"I called Bev. She's worried about you, and so am I. I'm hoping to convince you to move back home. It's like a house full of ghosts back there, and I miss you like crazy."

"Too late," Katie said. "I've moved on. You should too."

"Moved on to what? An apartment the size of a closet? More painkillers? Kid, we've been through too much together to watch you die alone. To hell with Glory Beth; give her another month with the God Squad and she'll come begging us to let her return."

"It's not that, and you know it," Katie said, shoving the bouquet further away; the smell was nauseating her. "I only stayed with you for the last two years for Glory Beth's sake. Since you starting cheating."

"I told you right up front what I was doing, as you'll remember. I thought maybe now, when you're close to, you know, you'd see how silly it is to let other people stand in the way of living life on your terms. But I'll tell you what; you come back, I'll remain faithful. If that's what it takes."

"Which will make me just what you despise, right? The person who takes away your freedom? No thanks."

"So what are you going to do?" Deb's cheeks were flushed, a sign Katie had long recognized as a precursor to an angry outburst. "Hole up here until you die? For Christ's sake, there's not even anyone to find the body. You could lay here until you rot before someone knows you've passed."

"I'm working on a project," Katie said. "Believe me, there will be plenty of people know when I die."

"I don't like the sound of that."

"Meditate on this. I don't want you. I don't need you. Go and sleep with anybody you want. Be free." She waved her hand toward the door.

Deb stood, frowned, shook her head. "You poor girl. Don't be afraid to call me when you need me. And you will." She left without a backward glance.


On the news that evening the murder was the lead story; given the history of the victim, there was a hint of schadenfreude in the reporter's voice. Fortunately, there was still no mention of a witness, although the reporter conjectured that the shots might have come from a van or SUV. They did suggest a possible link with the Walmart shooting.

She had expected a race between her mortality and discovery, so she wasn't all that worried that they might have pieced together a bit of the plan. The day of her death was still in her control.

The next morning, though, she woke exhausted, only then realizing she had forgotten to eat the day before. With disgust, she ate a few of the prunes from the bouquet and rinsed them down with a bottle of Ensure. It was mid-afternoon before she had the energy to browse for her next victim.

It didn't take long. Scott Van Driesen, once a wide receiver for the local university, had been caught eleven years earlier raping a coed at knife point. Since his release from prison two months before, two women had been raped by a man matching his description and method. However, the Columbus Dispatch reported that the woman Van Driesen was living with, Polly Bender, who had been one of his guards in prison, insisted he'd been home with her both nights. Caught by the photographer, Van Driesen had given the most appallingly smug smile when asked if he did it.


Bender had a house in the country twenty miles west of Columbus, which magnified the difficulty. Katie assumed the sheriff's department was going to keep an eye on him, although she doubted they had the manpower to watch him around the clock. The night was once again going to be her friend.

She studied the layout on Google Earth. The house was surrounded by cornfields, the nearest neighbor a quarter-mile away. There was a lane a hundred yards to the west of the house to allow tractor access to the corn fields. Since the August heat had baked the ground dry, she presumed she could park there.

She had never made a Molotov cocktail before, but she remembered the olive oil vases that had been Deb's obsession for a while, until she discovered they were too brittle. Waiting until Deb was at work, she returned to the two-story long enough to snatch one that would hold a quart of gasoline. It was shaped like an acorn squash, easy for her to throw.

The lane through the corn was indeed bone dry; she was able to back well away from the road at 3:00 a.m. the next morning. She made her way on foot down a row of corn toward the house, the rifle over her shoulder, the gas bomb in her left hand. She nicked her earlobe on a corn leaf and it began to drip blood, but the pain disappeared into that of her ribs.

She stopped at the border between corn and lawn, laid the rifle down, and pulled out the lighter she'd brought from home, the one she used to fire up the medical marijuana that had proven so useless. She played out the steps in her mind, took a deep breath and walked quickly to the house. There she lit the fuse and, with all her remaining strength, threw it through the picture window of the living room.

As flames lit the interior of the house, she dashed back to the corn, dropped to the ground, picked up the rifle and sighted on the front door.

She was almost too slow when the two of them exited instead through the kitchen door on her side of the building. She quickly sighted on Van Driesen as he turned on the outside faucet and fumbled with the hose curled at his foot. She aimed for his back, but hit him in the head instead.

To her surprise, Bender, an older, obese woman, didn't run; instead, unthinkably, she ran in Katie's direction, shrieking. She waited as long as she could for the woman to come to her senses before dropping her with a shot to the chest only ten yards from her sniper's nest.
The fire department responded so rapidly she had to wait for them to pass by before pulling her car out of the corn and speeding away.


Every time she started to drift into sleep, Van Driesen's face, at the moment of impact, came back to her. She had thought her heart adamantine, but apparently she had a bit of work yet to do to purge herself of sentiment. And she felt repentant about Bender. The woman had been a liar and a fool but didn't deserve to die for such scum.

To her surprise, the sheriff of Sheridan County was quite open on TV that morning about what the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation had found on the scene. They had recovered a shoe print from where she had approached the house, a tire print from where she parked, and a blood sample from the corn leaf on which she had cut her ear. Luckily, she was sure her DNA was not in any police database. They had matched the bullets in all three killings, though, and the television people were barely able to disguise their delight at having a serial killer to draw viewership. Even more so as the BCI had concluded from the footprint that the perp was a woman.

Katie walked into the bedroom and grabbed her father's Glock, tucked it into her waistband.


"Tell me about Glory Beth," Eric had asked during her first visit six months earlier.

"She's precocious," Katie said. "She should be, given the amount we spent on sperm."

"And your partner? Is she smart too?"

"Very much so. It's gotten so sometimes I have trouble following their conversations."

"That must be annoying, since you were the birth mother."

"I guess so. Sometimes I get the sense that Glory Beth sees Deborah as her mother, or maybe her father, or both, while I'm something else. I can't put my finger on what. A wicked aunt, maybe?"

"From what you've told me about your partner, she sounds like a person who makes people earn her respect."

"Oh, that's true. She can be downright rude to people. But not to Glory Beth. She can do no wrong in Deb's eyes."

"But not in yours."

"I can tell the girl is going to break my heart. I just don't know how."

"Did you ever consider that your ambivalent feelings about your daughter might be in part transference of your feelings about Deb?"

Katie had sat quietly mulling this over for several minutes, until the silence grew too oppressive. "How much am I paying you for this bullshit?"


She had intended to complete the plot in the morning, before the lawyers trickled off to court, but her ribs kept her up late, until she took an extra couple of Percocet. They left her drowsy until 11 a.m., and by the time she showered, dressed, and wrote out her confession, it was early afternoon.

The traffic was one thing she was not going to miss, she thought as she fought her way downtown. Luckily, the parking garage across from the firm where Deb worked had several open handicapped slots on the ground floor. Ironically, it had been Deb who convinced her to get a script for a handicapped mirror hanger.

She laid the rifle on the passenger seat, where the police were sure to find it, and used her phone to email her confession to them. She adjusted the Glock in the small of her back.

As she rode the elevator to the fourth floor of the building across the street, she realized that the outfit she was wearing, the mint-green taffeta blouse, the tailored slacks, the melon blazer, the Blahnik flats, had been bought for her by Deb. That was a mistake, but she was too far into it to return home and change.

She had never cared for the firm's receptionist, Astana Poole, a woman who had a way of looking at her that she found demeaning, unsure it if was personal or simply a strategy to put clients in their proper place, subordinate to their attorneys. Therefore, she wasn't afraid to pull the pistol as she walked up to her. The waiting area was otherwise unoccupied.

"What in the world?" Poole said, finger poised above her phone.

"Before you call 9-1-1, call Deb. Tell her I'm waiting for her. Don't tell her any more than that."

Poole, hands shaking, pressed Deborah's extension. Katie couldn't hear her answer, since Poole was wearing a headset, but was content that the woman did just as she instructed.

"Now call the cops."

Poole, puzzlement on her face, punched the number. When the police answered, she identified herself, gave the address, and said, "We have a woman in the lobby named Katie Frank holding me at gunpoint. I think she means to kill Deborah Kline, one of our attorneys."

When Poole began nodding, and Katie said, "That's enough. Hang up."

She did so. "Please don't kill me."

"You do what I tell you, you'll walk away from this. Understand?"

Poole nodded. Katie could smell the odor of urine wafting across the room, and was pretty sure her diaper was dry.

Just then, Deb came around the corner, saw the setup, and stopped. "What the hell are you doing?"

"You and I have some unfinished business." She swung the gun around to point at her ex.

"What? You're going to kill me now? Are you really that angry?"

"You cost me my daughter. Shouldn't I be?"

Deb wrapped her arms across her chest. "Elaine took Glory Beth from us. You know that."

Katie's arm was trembling. "But you provided the ammunition. It's you that deserves the punishment."

"So that's why you're going to kill me. To punish me for losing Glory Beth."

"Who said I was going to kill you? I've done far worse. I hope you enjoy going through the rest of your life known as the wife of a serial killer."

Deb was silent for a long moment. "It was you? That shot those people? That was your project?"

Katie heard Poole gasp. In the distance, she could also hear a siren. "The guidance counselor in my high school asked me once what I was going to do to leave the world a better place. I figure I've done my bit."

"I never knew you had such cruelty in you," Deb said. Katie could see the tears coursing down her cheeks.

"Cruel? You haven't seen anything yet. When you think of me, I don't want you dredging up sweet memories, so here's my last gift. I want you to remember me just like this."

And with that, she raised the gun to her temple and fired.