Monday, July 24, 2017

Last Good Day, by Michael Bracken

Elmo Tiller sat on the open tailgate of his white Ford Super Duty F-450, nursed a cold bottle of Shiner Bock pulled from the ice chest a few minutes earlier, and watched a dust plume approaching. He wore ropers the color of Texas dirt that had long ago molded themselves to the shapes of his feet, well-worn Wranglers that clung to legs bowed from decades of horseback riding, a chambray long-sleeved work shirt with the cuffs rolled back to reveal sinewy forearms the color and texture of worn leather, and a sweat-stained white Shantung straw Stetson that shielded his pale blue eyes from the glaring morning sun. He had shaved before driving down from the ranch house, but tufts of gray bristle nestled where the razor failed to navigate the wrinkled canyons of his face. A blue bandanna hung from one back pocket, a pair of tan deerskin gloves from the other, and a holster tucked into the small of his back held a Glock 27 semi-automatic pistol he’d purchased and registered after earning the concealed carry permit in his wallet.

He turned his attention from the approaching dust plume to the Herefords scattered across the short-grass prairie his forebears had fenced off for pastureland. In addition to the cattle dotting the landscape were several shrubby mesquite trees and some prickly pear cacti, but the only real trees were a few cottonwoods growing near the ranch house at the top of the low rise several miles away. After his most recent visit to his cardiologist, any day Elmo spent outside with his cattle was a good day.

He’d just finished the beer and opened a second when an aging black Dodge Ram 3500 wheeled through the open gate and across the cattle guard, a rusty livestock trailer clunking along behind it. The rancher set the bottle aside and slipped down from the tailgate as a man less than half his age stepped out of the Dodge. Chance Palmer came from a different generation. Though he wore Wranglers like Elmo, he also wore scuffed black steel-toed work boots, a sleeveless black Metallica T-shirt that hung loosely over his emaciated frame, and a black-and-white Tractor Supply Co. gimme cap with the brim broken into a compound curve lower on the left that partially blocked sunlight coming in the side window when he drove. Stringy black hair hung to his shoulders, and that he had not shaved in several days gave his face a dirty, mottled appearance. When he spoke, he revealed rotting black teeth surrounded by the open sores on his gums and lips.

“Mornin’, Elmo.”

Elmo winced at the smell of the other man’s breath and nodded a greeting. He hadn’t had much time to plan for their meeting after Chase called his burner phone that morning and told him special agent Jim Walker had been nosing around his place, but Elmo felt confident he’d thought everything through, beginning with smashing the burner phone and dropping the pieces into the well behind his ranch house.

“I brought four, just like I said.”

Elmo followed Chance toward the livestock trailer. As he did, he glanced in the bed of Chance’s truck, where he saw bolt cutters used to gain access to pastureland and a bucket of feed used to attract cattle.

“No tags, no brands,” Chance said. He scratched one arm and then the other. “I checked.”

Elmo eyed the four Herefords—three cows and one steer—inside the trailer. Deep cherry red, with white faces, chests, and lower bellies, nothing about their coloration appeared unique, and Elmo felt certain the cattle would easily blend with his herd until they became steaks, one indistinguishable from the other.

“Let ’em out one at a time,” Elmo said, “and let me look ’em over.”

Chance swung the tailgate open and dropped the loading ramp. One at a time, he led each of the animals out of the trailer for Elmo to examine. Just as Chance had promised, there were no identifying marks on any of the Herefords—no brands and no ear tags with or without built-in radio-frequency identification. Each animal would pull in about a thousand dollars at auction, but until he transported the Herefords to auction, they would be drinking his water and eating his grass, both of which were in short supply thanks to the drought.

Without sufficient water, grass didn’t grow, cows couldn’t eat, and herds shrank. As the drought continued, fewer head reaching market meant prices went up and, as prices went up, rustling became increasingly profitable. Unemployable cattlemen such as Chance found an easier way to feed their methamphetamine addictions than boosting cars and breaking into homes. Though risking prison time for third-degree felony, all Chance had to do was walk into a pasture with a bucket of feed and attract the attention of a few head of cattle, which followed the feed as he led them up a ramp and into his livestock trailer. On a good night, he could cut the padlock on a gate, get two to four head into his trailer, and be back on the road in less than thirty minutes. And nothing was more inconspicuous on a Texas back road than a pickup truck towing a livestock trailer.

For several years, rustlers dropped stolen cattle at auction houses and returned later to collect whatever money the animals brought at auction, a business run entirely on handshake agreements. When the auction houses tightened up their sale requirements, it became harder for rustlers like Chance to unload stolen cattle.

Then Elmo and Chance found themselves in adjacent Emergency room beds. Elmo had suffered his first heart attack while visiting a feedlot, and after Chance overdosed he had been dropped in the hospital’s driveway by a fellow tweaker. They soon realized they could solve each other’s financial problems.

Chance no longer had a safe way to sell the cattle he rustled, and Elmo’s income had taken a hit as the drought forced him to thin his herd. As owner of the biggest ranch in the tri-county area and a past president of the Cattle Ranchers Association, Elmo was beyond reproach. He could easily mix stolen cattle with his herd and move them through the auction houses for a reasonable profit. Thanks to Chance, he was moving near as many head through the auction houses as he had before the drought began.

Elmo slapped each of the Herefords on the ass, encouraging them to meander across the pasture toward the other cattle grazing there. Each of the animals would pull in about a thousand dollars at auction, so Elmo pulled a rubber-banded roll of twenty one-hundred-dollar bills from his pocket and pressed it into Chance’s hand, paying half the Herefords’ value to the tweaker rustler.

“I can’t have you bringing Walker down on me,” Elmo said, unwilling to risk prison time because he knew his heart couldn’t take it, “so you need to lie low for awhile.”

“Yeah. I guess. Right.” Chance scratched his arms and blinked rapidly. “What’m I going to do about—?”

Elmo cut him off. “Same as you did before.”

As Chance walked away, shoving the cash into his front pocket without counting it, Elmo called his name.

Chance turned. “Yeah?”

Elmo drew the automatic from the holster at the small of his back. He fired once, drilling a hole in the middle of the younger man’s chest.

Then he pulled on his leather gloves and removed the wad of bills from the dead man’s pocket. He stuck the money in a hidden cavity in his truck’s wheel well, replacing a .38 Special he’d purchased off the books many years earlier.

After returning to the dead man, he fired one shot from the .38 into the side of his truck and a second shot into the distance.

He grabbed the bolt cutters from the back of Chance’s truck and walked down to the open gate. After he closed it, he snapped the padlock into place before cutting the lock free. He dropped the pieces to the ground, where they fell through the metal grid of the cattle guard. Short of breath and sweating from the exertion, Elmo pushed back the brim of his Stetson and mopped his brow with the blue bandanna. He opened the gate again and threw the bolt cutters into the back of Chance’s truck as he returned to his F-450. There, he removed his gloves and returned them to his back pocket, settled onto the tailgate, and drained the open Shiner Bock he’d earlier set there.

When the bottle was empty, he pulled out his cellphone.

By the time the sheriff arrived thirty minutes later, Elmo had trouble lifting his left arm. Even so, he stood beside the sheriff without complaint and together they stared at Chance’s body. By then the dead man had begun attracting flies, and twice during the wait Elmo had shooed away an aggressive vulture.

The sheriff, a barrel-chested man only a few years younger than Elmo, wore a badge pinned to his white pearl-snap western-style shirt open at the collar. His dark blue Wranglers had been pressed by his wife that morning, and his black boots had started the day with a high polish.

Elmo handed the man his Glock. “I caught the son-of-a-bitch trying to steal my cattle.”

He explained that he had been protecting his property when Chance tried to shoot him, and that he’d been protecting himself when he’d shot Chance. He knew the sheriff would believe him. He’d helped finance every one of the sheriff’s election campaigns.

The sheriff eyed Elmo’s truck. “Where’s your rifle?”

“Up at the house. I didn’t have time to grab it.”

“You had time to grab beer but not your rifle?”

“I was loading the ice chest when I saw him coming through the gate.”

The sheriff looked toward the ranch house, barely able to see it on the rise. “You saw him from all the way up at the house?”

“My eyesight’s fine.”

Elmo repeated his story when Jim Walker joined them a few minutes later. Dressed much like the sheriff, but sporting a handlebar mustache and wearing a six-shooter at his hip, the whip-thin Walker worked as the Cattle Ranchers Association’s special ranger for the district, charged with investigating livestock thefts and ranch-related property losses. He had arrived sooner than anticipated, but Elmo felt confident from the sheriff’s reaction to his initial telling that his story would hold true.

The sheriff walked the special ranger around the crime scene, pointing out the cut padlock, the bolt cutters in the bed of Chance’s pickup, the empty livestock trailer with the gate open and ramp extended, the bullet hole in the side of Elmo’s truck, and the revolver in the dead tweaker's hand.

Elmo hung back and leaned against the open tailgate of his F-450. He had been feeling poorly ever since cutting the padlock, and now he felt as if a Hereford bull sat on his chest. He’d felt the same pressure twice before, and both times he’d been hospitalized. He patted his pockets with his right hand. In his rush to leave the ranch house that morning to take care of Chance, he had failed to take care of himself. He had forgotten his nitroglycerin pills.

“Hey,” he said, trying to attract the other men’s attention. They were too far away and too engrossed in their own conversation to hear his weak plea for help. “Hey.”

“I’ve been hard on that boy’s ass for a couple of months now,” Walker said, indicating Chance’s body with a thrust of his chin. “I knew he’d been rustling, but I couldn’t figure out where he’s been selling the cattle. None of the auction houses has any record of dealing with him for near on a year.”

The sheriff scratched his chin and said, “Looks like Elmo here solved your problem for you.”

“Looks like he did,” Walker agreed, “but not the way you think. Chance wasn’t picking up cows, he was delivering.”

When Walker turned to address the rancher, Elmo clutched his chest and fell to the ground. As he lay in the blazing mid-morning sun, Elmo stared under his truck across the short-grass prairie at the Herefords, shrubby mesquite trees, and prickly pear cacti dotting the landscape, and ended his last good day knowing he would avoid prison time.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Scum Bar, by Tony Tremblay

In the evening, the Tavern Bar wasn’t a pretty sight from the street. Inside was even worse. But this was Goffstown, and with my options limited, it was the only place where I felt comfortable having a few drinks alone.

Its redundant name was supposed to be some kind of joke; no doubt the owner had thought himself a superb wit when he named it, but it never took. Instead, the locals called it The Scum Bar. The owner didn’t seem to mind the nickname as he never did anything to live the moniker down.

The Scum Bar was where people went for some serious drinking, and that was exactly what Wade was doing when I walked in.

We were both thieves, second-story men, and occasionally we called on each other for advice or help on some of the more difficult jobs we took on. He was tall but thin so he could shimmy through almost any size window, a real asset in our business. He was also one of the best safecrackers I had ever met. What I liked about Wade was, like me, he always passed on a score if there were a potential for violence. He would take jobs only if the marks weren’t home, and he never carried a weapon. I wasn’t always averse to violence, but after a few rough patches, I put those tough guy days behind me.

The last time I had seen Wade was about three or four weeks ago. He had a new girl on his arm and was as happy as I’d ever seen him. So why was he sitting in The Scum Bar, staring down his drink? I couldn’t let this go. I slipped into the seat opposite him while ordering two scotches from a waitress hovering close by. It took a few seconds, but he finally gazed up at me. He looked like shit. His eyes were glassy, unfocused, and the corners of his lips were dipped toward the table. I asked him what was troubling him.

“They took her,” he replied in a voice that was low and trailing.

“Who took who, Wade?”

“Sullivan. Sullivan and his goons. They took Sheri.”

It took me a moment, but I remembered that Sheri was the name of the girl I saw him with a few weeks ago. “Wade, back up, tell me everything from the start.”

He lifted his glass and emptied it. The timing was perfect; the waitress came by and set two fresh glasses of scotch on the table.

“Run a tab, honey?” she asked. I nodded back to her. Wade wrapped his hands around the drink but he didn’t bring it to his lips. Instead, he told me his story.

“Sheri and I were out in Manchester for dinner last night. When we finished it was late, and when we walked back to the car a big-ass Chrysler pulled up alongside us. Sullivan and three of his goons got out. They stepped in front of us—there was no way of getting around them.”

Thomas Sullivan. He was trouble on two feet. He ran an outfit out of Haverhill, Massachusetts, known for pulling messy jobs, meaning he didn’t care if anyone got hurt. His specialty was knocking off jewelry stores, though many believed he was involved in a few other high-profile robberies. What the hell did he want with a small-time guy like Wade?

“Sullivan said that I had broken into the house of a friend of his in Goffstown,” Wade continued. “He said that I took twenty grand out of that house, and he wanted it back. I had no fucking idea what he was talking about. I hadn’t made a big score since I’d hooked up with Sheri, and that was in Vermont.”

Like me, Wade never shit where he ate. We always did our jobs outside of town, outside of New Hampshire if possible.

“I told Sullivan it wasn’t me, but he didn’t believe it. His goons pushed me up against a wall and they started to beat the shit out of me. He told me he was taking Sheri. I could have her back when he got the money. He gave me until tomorrow.”

I felt like I had just listened to the plot of a bad movie. What the hell was going on here? It didn’t add up. Why would Sullivan himself come up from Massachusetts? Why didn’t he let his goons handle it? And why did they think Wade had anything to do with the robbery? Also, kidnapping wasn’t Sullivan’s style. It left a witness. Then I thought about how Sullivan didn’t mind getting messy.

“I don’t have twenty grand to give him.” Wade went on, his voice cracking. “I don’t even know where to get twenty grand. What the hell am I going to do?”

I didn’t have twenty grand to give Wade, and I wasn’t sure I would give it to him if I had it. I began to run his story through my head, picking out details that I wanted to follow up on. That’s when Eddie walked through the door.

Eddie was a sleazeball, a small-time player who picked at the bones of the simple and the elderly. He was a con artist, pulling off scams about grandkids in trouble that depleted the bank accounts of retirees. I didn’t trust the son of a bitch and he knew it. I usually stayed far away from Eddie but that didn’t stop him from coming over to our booth. He nodded and then slid next to me, and began talking to Wade.

“Wade, buddy! How you doing?”

Even his voice sounded slippery to me.

“I’ve been looking for you pal,” Eddie continued, “I’ve got a job for you.”

At the mention of a job, Wade looked expectantly at Eddie. “You serious? How big?”

Eddie ignored the question. “It’s right up your alley, Wade. It’s a house close by, on Tibbetts Hill Road, easy in and out, but there’s a safe we gotta get into and I ain’t good with safes.”

Wade leaned over until he was no more than a foot away from Eddie’s face, his eyes drilled into Eddie’s. “I asked how big.”

For a moment, Eddie fidgeted in his seat. “I’m getting this second hand from my source, but from what he tells me we’re looking at over fifty grand.”

“I’m in,” Wade said without hesitation.

I had been listening patiently up to now, but I couldn’t stay quiet any longer. “Wade, what in the hell’s the matter with you? This smells like a setup!

” Wade turned to me, his brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“This whole thing seems too neat,” I explained to him. “Your girl gets kidnapped, they demand a ransom of twenty grand—which you don’t have—and then this guy comes in offering you a job that will pay it off. You’re being played.”

It didn’t take long for Eddie to get back in character. “Hey, wait,” he retorted, his face a mask of innocence, “I have no idea what you guys are talking about. I don’t know nothing about no kidnapping and I want no part of it. Look, Wade, you want in or not?

It’s got to be done soon, within the hour, because the family that lives there will be coming back tonight.”

Wade continued to stare hard at Eddie. “You better not be screwing with me, Eddie,” he said, “I need this job bad.”

Eddie smiled. “You get half: twenty-five G’s. You gotta tell me now, Wade, or I’m outta here.”

“This whole thing stinks, Wade,” I said trying to reason with him, “it’s too pat, it’s too close to home, and the timing’s too tight. Come on man, don’t do it.”

For a moment, I thought Wade was going to blow the job off. He shook his head and murmured something about not knowing what to do. But I was wrong. He ignored me, looked at Eddie, and said, “Let’s do it.”

Then the two of them left The Scum Bar.

I nursed my drink for a half hour.

I’m not my brother’s keeper.

I kept telling myself that, but it didn’t make me feel any better. I motioned to the waitress and left two twenties on the table. It was too much but I didn’t want to wait for the change.


Tibbetts Hill Road was in one of the more well-to-do neighborhoods of Goffstown. It was a long road, well paved, with streetlights every hundred yards or so, and the homes were well spaced out. I drove over it slowly looking for Wade’s or Eddie’s car. The moon was full, and while I couldn’t make out every detail on the road, there was enough light for me to navigate without a problem.

It took me a long five minutes, but I finally spotted Wade’s white Ford Taurus parked in a long line of cars on the right side of the road. Someone was having a party. Could this be dumb luck or was it was part of the setup? If the party was staged, someone went through an awful lot to make sure this job got pulled off without any trouble. The source Eddie mentioned might be the neighbor of the house they were hitting. If that were the case, fifty grand cut three ways didn’t leave enough for Wade to pay off Sullivan.

I reached into my glove box and took out a pair of latex gloves, slipping them on as I got out of my car. Sticking close to the line of parked vehicles, I walked up the street, passing the party. The music was loud and there were several people behind the house with drinks in their hands. I could hear an occasional raucous guffaw over the music. The house next door to the party was a good forty feet away. It was a gambrel with a two-car garage—no lights. Three-foot-high hedges surrounded the property gave it some natural cover. A nearby streetlight provided enough illumination for me to make my way around the grounds without fumbling blindly.

I went to the far side of the house where the garage was located, and slipped in through the hedges until I was against the wall.

The side of the garage had no windows, so I was going to have to look inside through the overhead doors in the front. Poking my head around the corner, the first thing I did was to look up. A motion detector was nestled in the roof’s peak. I searched around and found a child’s pull toy lying on the ground. I grabbed it and carefully tossed it in front of the garage. The lights on the motion detector didn’t come on.

It was a bad sign but I shrugged it off. I turned the corner and stood in front of the garage. I looked inside through one of the small rectangular windows in the door, and a chill went up my spine.

There were two cars parked in the garage. Those had to be the owner’s.

I’m not a praying man, but I found myself asking God to give me a sign that I was at the wrong house. My prayer was answered, but not in the way I had hoped. A flashlight beam swept across the front windows of the house.

I ducked back to the side of the garage and then rushed to the rear. Keeping low and staying tight against the foundation, I walked hunched-over, following the back of the house until I came to the opposite sidewall. I crept toward the closest window and peered inside. Cringing, and on the verge of vomiting, I turned away.

It was a kids’ playroom. Laid out on the floor, side by side, were five bodies; two women, one man, and two small children. Their throats and chests were covered with dark stains.

I stepped away from the window shaking and leaned against the wall. I needed to catch my breath, to somehow banish that bloody scene from my head. However, my mind kept going back to that playroom. Something about the adults didn’t add up. Why were there three of them? Why two women and one man? Then it came to me. The odd woman must have been Sheri. If Wade was still here, he didn’t know that Sheri was dead. And, as soon as he had that safe open, Wade was going to be just as dead. I had to get inside.

Retracing my steps, I came to the rear door; I assumed this was how they had entered the house. I reached for the handle and it turned easily. The door led me into the kitchen where there was just enough light for me to make my way through without bumping into anything. I walked into the living room and paused. I heard movement coming from upstairs. Footsteps? I eased my way onto the stairway and trod softly. At the top, there was sound to my immediate right. There was an open door. Standing off to its side, I peered in.

The room was well lit from the streetlight. It was large and appeared to be a master bedroom. Eddie stood there with his back turned to me, facing a king-sized bed. In front of him, on the wall to his far right, was an open safe. Below the safe, on the floor with his back against the wall and his legs splayed, sat Wade. His head hung low and both of his hands were clutching at his stomach. Blood had pooled between his thighs.

My knees went weak and I swallowed hard. I couldn’t tell if Wade was alive or not. It didn’t take long for the anger to start boiling within me. It had been a long time since I had wanted to hurt someone this bad.

I rushed Eddie, curling my right hand into a fist while bringing my arm back for the swing. I grunted, wanting the bastard to know I was coming for him. Sure enough, when he heard me, he turned. My fist slammed into the side of his face so hard his feet lifted from the floor. His head bounced off the wall behind the bed. He fell hard to the floor and didn’t move. Satisfied that he was out, I hurried around the bed and over to Wade.

I knelt down, put one hand under his chin and lifted it gently. “Wade, buddy, can you hear me?” He was still.

Then, his chin rose off my hand and he opened his eyes into small slits. “Yeah, I can hear you.”

“I’m going to get you out of here.”

Wade sighed. His hands slid to his sides, exposing the handle of a knife jutting from his stomach. “You gotta get the diamonds first,” he whispered. “We need them to save Sheri.”


Confused, I left Wade’s side and walked over to the bed. Sure as shit, an open wooden box lay there with a handful of diamonds inside. Scattered around the box were bundles of hundred-dollar bills. I guess Eddie had been counting them when I clocked him.

“Step away from the bed please.”

The voice was a woman’s. I turned and saw her standing in the doorway. Though I had met her only that one time, I knew it was Sheri. She was pointing a handgun with a suppressor at me.

I moved toward Wade, who sat motionless against the wall. Either he had passed out or he was dead. I said her name loudly, hoping for a reaction from him.

“Sheri, who’s the extra woman downstairs?"

Wade didn’t so much as flinch at the mention of her name.

“No idea,” answered Sheri. “She was here visiting when Eddie and I came over earlier to take care of the family. Wrong place, wrong time I guess.” She laughed.

Still, no reaction from Wade.

I looked down at the floor, my anger building. “You were part of the setup from the beginning, weren’t you? Dating him. Getting him to fall in love with you.“

Something stirred on the floor, at the other side of the bed. Eddie moaned, sat up and rubbed his jaw. Both our heads turned to him as he struggled to get up. He must have heard me because in a shaky voice he answered my question for Sheri.

“Yeah, she was in on it from the beginning. She’s one of Sullivan’s girls; he picked her specifically for this job. Guy who owns this house, he’s a fence and Sullivan knew he came into a nice stash of diamonds from the West Coast.” Eddie stopped for a few seconds to stretch his jaw. “Sullivan came to me because I was local, but I didn’t know anything about breaking into safes. But I knew Wade did. We just needed a way to get Wade involved. Sheri was our ticket.”

I looked at Sheri and then back to Eddie. “How do I fit in?”

“You don’t,” he replied. “I’m not even sure why the hell you’re here.” He turned to the bed and gathered up the cash. “Sullivan told me I could keep any cash that I found, and it looks like there’s at least forty grand here.” He transferred the bundles from hand to hand as he counted them.

I shook my head. “You planned on Wade being your fall guy for the murders. How were you going to explain his death?”

Eddie smiled as he counted. “Not sure. Sullivan said he’d take care of it. The boys will be here in about an hour so I’m sure he’s got something in mind.”

“Eddie,” Sheri casually called to him.

Eddie answered offhandedly, “Yeah?” He was still counting the money.

“Sully’s already figured that out.”

Sheri turned the gun toward Eddie and pulled the trigger. A puff of white smoke rose from the barrel of the suppressor. Eddie fell onto the bed; the blood seeping from the wound in his head soaked the blankets and the cash.

I knew Sheri was heartless but her ruthlessness was unexpected. I had to admit though, that as I watched Eddie bleed out on the bed, I took some satisfaction in the fact that there was one less sleazeball in the world.

Turning, I faced Sheri. “Let me guess. Eddie and Wade were supposed to kill each other, probably fighting over the money.”

She nodded with a smile. “And it looks like you’re going to be part of the mix.”

I had to think fast. I couldn’t run—I wouldn’t have gone more than a few steps before she shot me. So I did the only thing I could think of: I dove to the floor on my side of the bed.

Small pieces of wall board exploded above me. When I went to push myself under the bed, I was blocked by storage boxes tucked beneath it. Sheri appeared and stood over me. Defeated, I rolled onto my back and waited.

“Nice try,” she said, pointing the gun between my eyes.

Then she screamed.

Sheri lowered the gun, and then struggled to reach around to her back with her free hand. I sprang to my feet and charged, hitting her full on, pushing her backward, onto the floor. When we landed, I heard her gasp loudly. The gun tumbled out of her hand.

I stared hard at her face as I pushed myself up off her. Sheri’s eyes were wide with shock, her mouth frozen in the shape of a perfect O. I hovered over her until I was satisfied she was no longer a threat. I slipped off and then I flipped her over. Wedged deep into the small of her back was a knife. I slid over to Wade to thank him for what he had done.

Wade was dead.

There was not a lot of time to think about what had just happened or how it had happened. I needed to get the hell out of there. I stood and prepared to leave, but I hesitated at the end of the bed.

I scooped up half the diamonds out of the box and grabbed as much dry cash as I could stuff into my pockets.

I high-tailed it downstairs and back to the car, and then I drove to my safe-location where I keep my stash. All of the diamonds and money went into storage, except for two hundred-dollar bills.


Now, here I am back at The Scum Bar. The booth where Wade and I sat earlier is empty so I slide into it. The same waitress we had comes over. I order a scotch. I slip both of the hundred dollar bills into her apron. “If anyone asks,” I tell her, “I never left this booth.”

She smiles, pockets the bills and says before leaving, “No problem, honey.”

Sitting here with a drink, I can finally wrap my head around what happened. Though I figure I’m lucky as hell that Wade had enough life in him to stab Sheri in the back, I’m amazed at the willpower it must have taken for him to do it. I can’t imagine the pain Wade felt when he learned Sheri was part of the setup.

I’m confident that Sullivan couldn’t have known I was there; I was never part of the plan to begin with. Sullivan’s boys will find the remaining diamonds and the cash on the bed, and that should keep him satisfied. I’m also pretty sure that Sullivan doesn’t give a rat’s ass about Sheri. After all, he pimped her out to Wade in the first place. Sullivan will tell his boys to leave some cash on the bed and the cops will have no problem tying it all up.

Looking around this dump, I think it’s time for me to go away for awhile. Not for too long though, because I got those old feelings back. I want to hurt someone, and Sullivan is going to pay for what he did to Wade. In the meantime, I’ve decided I’m going to do what I came here to do in the first place.

I’m going to drink my scotch.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Primeval Ugly, by Preston Lang

Two men in suits met Dr. Lehrer just outside the lecture hall.

“Please come with us, ma’am.”

She could have protested, called them fascist bastards, and told them she was a free woman even in Reagan’s America, but in truth she was a little intimidated and glad for any excuse to miss a faculty meeting. They drove her out to an airfield where she met a man in military uniform called Colonel Begley, who handed her the lab report. Trim with a truly massive jawline, he walked about as fast as she could run.

“A murder investigation reopened three years after a conviction. A married couple in Ohio. Someone snapped their necks, tore them apart. Tossed the limbs around the room. The man they caught swore he was innocent. Last month his lawyer heard about a technique for getting DNA samples out of the carpet fibers. You know about that?”

“Sure, and I believe there is a lot of promise in the idea of using DNA to solve crimes, but this is not really my field. Not exactly.”

“Just look at it, ma’am.”

She gave the file a quick read. Holy Christ.

“Whose DNA is this?”

“The killer.”

“Where is this—man?”

“We have every reason to believe he is currently housed in St. Olwyn’s Correctional Facility in St. Olwyn, Alabama. Another murder charge. Another set of torn-apart people. He’s called John Panin—probably not his real name. So that’s where we’re going right now.”

“To examine the prisoner?”

“We’re taking him. The warden was supposed to have sent him, but he’d dragged his feet on it—didn’t understand, didn’t want to do it. Captain Redneck running his own little kingdom down there. We’re showing up and taking this John Panin.”

And then what? What did they want her to do exactly? Colonel Begley left her alone with silent men until another scientist joined them just before they boarded the plane. Small, gentle, middle-aged, he was introduced as Dr. Duine. She’d never heard of him, which was odd considering they were in the same relatively narrow field. But he was familiar with her work, paid her insightful compliments, and made one subtle joke about military hospitality. Before she could press into his background, the colonel separated them for the flight—Lehrer in the front, Duine in the back. There was just enough time for a real examination of the DNA report—the numbers on the page conjuring hideous helixes in her mind. They flew over the dense green of Ganayagee State Park and landed at an airfield, where they were met by a huge reinforced Humvee, a small sedan, and four serious-looking men with automatic weapons.

“Kids brought their toys,” Duine said.

The warden was large and red, but not quite the crowing southern rooster that the colonel had described.

“I’ve housed the prisoner for seven months. I’ve treated him with humanity, and I’ve protected the general population from him. We reached out to you people several times, and you had nothing to give us. Now you show up and demand his immediate release into your custody?”

“That is correct,” Colonel Begley said. “This is not a negotiation.”

The warden looked at Duine and Lehrer—two soft academics.

“How many men did y’all bring?”

“We’ve got manpower capable of handling the situation,” the colonel said.

“He’s been in iron since the incident with the chaplain,” the warden said. “But that iron is attached to the wall. You brought equipment to secure him for the transfer?”

“With all due respect, warden, we know what we’re doing. Now—”

“I’m sorry,” Lehrer interrupted. “You’ve had him in iron for how long?”

“Three months. I assure you, ma’am, it was necessary.”

“Warden, if you refuse to release him to us immediately, you’ll be in violation of federal law,” the colonel said.

“You’ll get your prisoner. I just need to be certain that you have manpower capable of the transfer. That’s for the safety of my facility and for your men.”

“Warden. The agents I’ve brought have received the most advanced training available. They’ve protected heads of state, gotten hostages out of terrorist camps. You’ve got a pack of flabby crackers who couldn’t pass the GED.”

“My main concern is—”

“Warden, your main concern had better be doing exactly as you're told.”

The warden tensed. He wasn’t a man to be disobeyed, let alone ridiculed on his own grounds. But the fight in his eyes leaked away—replaced with something like relief.

“It’s your dance now, Washington,” he said. “I wish you the best.”

Lehrer and Duine waited in the CO lounge while the colonel and his men went to get the prisoner into custody. The room was crowded with guards, all wide and short-haired, looking for a little information. Duine was adept at turning it around, getting the guards to give up the inside dope. One young bull was a natural storyteller.

“For the first three days we had him, he was quiet, you know? He don’t talk. Fourth day lunch a man touches his fruit cup—he tears that man’s arm clean out the socket. Then he finishes his fruit cup.”

“Don’t mess with that fucker’s fruit. I don’t care who you are.”

“Hey, what branch are y’all with?” the lone female officer asked.

“We’re not employees of the government,” Lehrer said.

“I’ll tell you the truth, Myra,” Duine said to the female officer. “We don’t know what this is about any more than you do.”

None of the guards believed that.

“And what’s this story with the chaplain?” Duine asked. “Warden mentioned something.”

“Oh. Let’s just say that the non-denominational chaplain is now sort of a non-brain-wave-activity chaplain.”

That got a laugh. Standard rough humor of a corrections officer.

“I’ll tell you something else you might not know about him,” Myra added, eager to share. “He ain’t John Panin. We booked him in as Panin, but a sheriff I know over in Ogochigee says that Panin was a small-timer—running juice and rough-looking girls. Disappeared a few years back. When they picked up this one, he had Panin’s ID. That was good enough for our locals. The sheriff out in Ogochigee—”

“Myra, come on. That’s just loose talk,” a colleague said.

“And he understands Russian better than he understands English,” a tall guard chimed in.

“He’s spoken to you?”

“Never spoken a word in any language. But we tried hollering at him in a whole bunch of languages. Orders, curses, nursery rhymes. Reading from these phrase books. Russian is what the ugly bastard perks up for.”

“I’m beginning to sense that he’s not considered a handsome man,” Duine said.

“I seen ugly in my time. It’s not always a beauty contest in this castle. I seen pocked-up and twisted and gashed. This guy? The pictures don’t hardly do him justice—he is primeval ugly.”

Soon enough Duine and Lehrer were escorted out to the parking lot. The sedan was there, but the colonel and the transport vehicle weren’t. Duine and Lehrer stood out in late-summer Alabama—nasty and sticky. It was the first time they had a chance to talk alone.

“You saw the lab report, right?” Lehrer asked.

Duine nodded.

“So what do you think it is?”

“I think someone in the medical examiner’s office got a little sloppy maybe,” he said. “Why, what do you think?”

“I can’t really say anything until I see him. But the DNA freaked me the hell out.”

“I’ve seen people get worked up over compromised samples before.”

“You have? Where do you work?”

Lehrer realized for the first time that she’d gotten almost nothing from Duine up to this point.

“I’ve been at the Kaiser Institute for the past few years.”

“They flew you in from West Germany? Did they tell you anything before you got on the plane?”

“Just that I had a chance to go to rural Alabama on a hot day.”

“Have you ever seen that kind of abnormality in a human? Let alone a human that survived to adulthood? I mean—have you?”

“My best guess is some overworked lab crew screwed up and wrote down the wrong numbers.”

“So why are you here?”

“Or maybe it’s a new kind of abnormality—like Klinefelter or Turner.”

“It’s nothing like—”

The armored truck pulled around the corner and stopped just in front of them. The colonel got out and popped into the sedan.

“Let’s move,” he said.

“Any trouble?” Duine asked.

“They put way too much into him—they gave him a dose that would knock down a bison.”

“But he’s in the truck now?”

“He’s in the truck. Sleeping like a baby. Like the scariest fucking baby you ever saw.”

They followed the truck out of the lot. As they left the prison grounds, the colonel’s mood seemed to lift. He’d gotten what he came for. That justified his bold, confrontational tactics, and for the first time all day, he smiled.

“Are you going to tell us what this is all about?” Lehrer asked.

“Back in the thirties there was a Soviet zoologist named Grigor Iliev. You guys are scientists and you never heard of him, right? No one has. Anyway he got the okay from Stalin and went to West Africa to impregnate some chimpanzees. But it didn’t work, and all the money for the project ran out. And the locals started to look at the guy like—hey, maybe leave our chimpanzees alone for a while. So he comes back to Russia a big failure. But then he had an epiphany. He’d been doing it backward. It’s not human semen into monkey mom. It’s monkey semen into human mom. It’s been monkey semen from Day One. You understand?”

“A chimpanzee is not a monkey,” Lehrer said automatically.

“Sorry, doctor. I’ll try to be more precise. There’s an ethical dilemma here, right? You guys understand that, don’t you? You ever wished for an authoritarian government and an abundance of poor, expendable peasant women?”

“I have never wished for that, no,” Lehrer said.

“Neither have I, of course. But Iliev managed to break down whatever high-minded scruples may have existed in the old politburo, and he got the thing done.”

“I’m sorry, Colonel. This is very entertaining, but it’s just not serious,” Duine said.

“We’re taking the most dangerous prisoner in the history of Alabama on a trip to Atlanta in an armored truck. Why do you think we’re doing this?”

“I don’t know—I’m new to government work. How did you connect this John Panin with the murder in Ohio?”

“The crime is the same. Victims torn apart, faces ripped off. We also know a few other things that aren’t relevant to a couple of scientists like yourselves. We’ve got our—specimen.”

Duine looked to Lehrer.

“You believe it?”

“I’m not saying anything for sure until we do a complete examination, but I’ve had some success with surprising combinations of rodents. I know it’s easy to mock, but I don’t think a human-chimpanzee hybrid is outside the realm of possibility.”

“So you think the Russians figured it out forty years ago and kept it going ever since?”

“The theory is that they created a small breeding population,” the colonel said. “Whether they intentionally introduced one into America or whether he’s here by accident—well, that remains to be seen. But this guy popped loose. Now we’ve got him. And that’s good news for the USA.”

“What applications would it have?” Lehrer asked.

“Are you kidding me? If you could get a man like this under control, you could put together a pretty terrifying outfit. It’s not for every job, but I’ve been in a few scraps where I could’ve made some subtle changes in history with a small group of loyal ape-men.”

They drove steadily east, past the sorghum and the wooden shacks into the state park.

“You guys hear that?” Duine asked.

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“Metal banging on metal.”

“From where? From the truck?”

They were silent and then they all heard it. Like someone rolling a pile of steel pipes over a concrete floor. A voice came over the radio.

“Colonel, he’s part of the way out.”

“How’d he do that?”

“He woke up, sir. He’s still strapped down inside the case, but he’s got one arm loose.”

“You’re watching him on the CC?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Let’s pick up the pace. If we really move, we’ll be in Atlanta in three hours.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So we’re just going to keep pushing?” Lehrer asked.

“He can’t get all the way loose.”

The road was narrow, and on either side lay thick forest. The asphalt gave way to dirt, and when it started to rain, the dirt turned to mud. The thumping continued, and they drove on—steady rain muffling the dull sound of struggle from the truck. The colonel’s radio crackled again. The men in the truck wanted to stop and give John Panin another dose.

“All right, let’s halt this caravan and reevaluate.”

The truck slowed to a stop in front of them. The colonel got out then went in the cab to check on the CC TV. He came out with two soldiers trailing.

“He’s got enough room now to bang his head into the top of the metal case,” the colonel said.

 “So he is getting himself loose?” Lehrer asked.

“A little bit, from the restraints. It’s not like he can get out of the case, though.”

“We don’t want him to hurt himself,” Duine said.

“I agree,” Lehrer added. “Repeated brain trauma can—”

A shout came from inside the Humvee. The colonel hurried back.

Duine smiled at the soldiers standing out in the rain.

“Just another day in the service?” he called.

Nothing from the young men. Duine shrugged. The colonel came out of the truck with two more soldiers.

“No choice but to make this dose nice and fat,” he said. “Davis, you’re trigger.”

“So we’re opening up the case, sir?” Davis asked.

“Unless you can think of another way to get him sedated.”

“If we open up the case, we might have the same issues we had on the way out, sir.”

“Yes, we will. But we can’t let this go on for another three hours.”

Davis prepared the tranquilizer. The rest of the men stood, armed and ready. Duine got out of the car and Lehrer followed. She was eager to see this thing. Could it really be a creature two steps beyond anything she’d been able to achieve?

“Get back in the vehicle, now,” the colonel shouted.

“Sorry, colonel. We’ve got to see this,” Duine said.

“I don’t want either of you getting hurt. Back in now. That’s an order.”

“We’ll keep our distance,” Lehrer said.

The banging rang out again, louder now—a burst of violent crashes. The colonel turned from the scientists back to his men.

“Cruz, you go in with Davis and open the case.”

“Colonel?” Cruz answered. “What is this guy?”

“He’s just a prisoner. That’s all you have to know.”

“Because we were talking. What happened in the transfer, stories the guards were telling us. We appreciate knowing what we’re dealing with.”

“Appreciate my hairy ass. Is that clear?”

“Not completely, sir.”

“You are going to open the case. Davis is going to sedate him. We’ll wait for him to go under, then we re-secure him. Is that clear? Is it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And don’t bring that thing into the van.”

The colonel took Cruz’s rifle. Then the young soldier went inside the truck and unlocked the bars of the hard metal case around the prisoner. The colonel stepped back to Lehrer and Duine.

“You’re not going to see much. In this light, with him strapped down. So I need you to get back in the car now.”

Dr. Lehrer took one step forward as Cruz began to lift open the case and Davis edged into place—huge syringe ready to inject. She could see the hairy torso of the prisoner by the interior lighting of the truck. He was muscular but not enormous. His head popped up groggily and he looked at her. The eyes were weary, resigned, intelligent, human.

“Looks like he’s coming down on his own,” Davis said. “I’m going to set to half dose.”

Then Lehrer heard the sound of gunfire, rapid automatic rounds of an M12. Down went one of the soldiers outside of the truck, then the second.

Dr. Lehrer hit the dirt and scurried behind the car. She heard two screams from inside the truck—the first one terrified and human, the second furious, triumphant, animal.

When she poked her head over the car she saw Dr. Duine, holding a rifle on the colonel.

“Doctor, have you lost your—”

Duine shot Colonel Begley in the head. There was a crash in the truck. Out flew the severed arm of a young man. Then out came the beast itself. Dragging metal clasps and canvas restraints, the creature rocked furiously out in the open now, trying to free itself from this annoyance. Standing on its feet, blood streaming from its hands and face, the eyes were no longer human. Dr. Duine dropped his weapon and walked toward it.

“Easy, now. Ya tvoy droog.”

The creature stopped its tantrum for the moment, but it stood coiled, ready to strike. Duine loosened one of the restraints, then another. Just before he got the last one off, the creature attacked. He raked an open hand along Duine’s gut and then cuffed him in the head, sending Duine sprawling across the dirt road. Then the beast ran, dragging one of the ankle restraints into the woods.

Lehrer carefully made her way around the car. Two soldiers and the colonel lay dead in the road. Inside the truck the other two soldiers were dismembered. Only Dr. Duine was left alive. He lay sprawled on the ground. The side of his face was partially ripped open. Lehrer grabbed a fallen rifle and pointed it at him.

“What is it? Where did it come from?” she asked.

“Never trust these men. They want to rule us. They want to destroy our families.”

“Our families?

” “He didn’t know me. He didn’t remember me. If I had the time to gain his trust—”

“Was Begley’s story true? Dr. Iliev—Soviet hybrids?”

“Iliev? That man was a moron. He was spilling bonobo semen on his shoes, while I was getting it done.”

“Getting what done?”

Duine’s head sunk back into the mud and he struggled to maintain his breathing, but he spoke clearly.

“Any hominid is capable of love. And she must conceive in the act of love. Otherwise you will inevitably fail. And you will have achieved nothing.”

Duine lifted the bottom of his shirt, and Lehrer saw that he’d been torn open. He couldn’t last ten minutes with this kind of blood loss. She wasn’t going to stop it.

“What is it?” she asked. “He is my son. My boy. My humanzee.”

She prodded him with the rifle, but he didn’t speak again. Lightning flashed nearby and the rain continued to pour onto the cars, and the guns, and the corpses. Lehrer was alone on the road, while the beast roamed the jungle.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Mark of a Good Deal, by JM Taylor

Miles felt exiled at the end of the bar. Sandy’s had become too upscale for him, but there wasn’t no place else to drink since Paddy’s shut down, turned into a fucking yogurt studio. All those housewives wearing Speedo pants and drinking five-dollar coffees.

Sandy’s used to be a decent bar with good hooch, but now it was one of those “taverns” with a fireplace, spiral-bound menu, and twenty different martinis. Bright-eyed families filled the tables and guys with lumberjack beards and form-fitting flannel congratulated each other for sipping bright green drinks. Miles couldn’t even tell if they liked women. What would happen if one of those housewives in tight pants came in? Normally, Miles’ buddy Chris would be here with him, to balance out the karma, so to speak, but Chris was doing thirty on a drunk and disorderly. Tough luck.

Putting down his bottle, he accidentally-on-purpose knocked over an empty shot glass. It rolled in an arc, threatening to bowl over a lumberfag’s glass. Sandy, quick on the uptake, caught it and slipped the shot into a rack beneath the bar. But he produced a new one, full to the brim with rye. Miles nodded his thanks, knocked it back, chased it with another mouthful of beer.

“Gettin’ late,” Sandy said. “Work night, ain’t it?”

“Fuck you,” Miles said, not without humor. “How the hell you think I stand that shithole, ’cept hungover?”

Sandy shrugged, put the second shot glass with the first. “Saw online you won’t have to worry much longer. True they’re moving the operation to New Orleans and turning the plant into luxury condos?”

Miles sneered. “Bought up a bunch of land after the damned hurricane. Putting in robots, too, so even the spades down there won’t get the jobs. Gonna have fucking drones flying through the place. Only like two goddamned human beings watching a screen in the whole plant. The accounting office they’re sending to Pakistan or Zimbabwe.”

“For that, I’ll give you a Bud on the house,” Sandy said. He took it out of the case, popped off the cap and stood it next to Miles’ empty.

It was one of those summer bottles that said “America” on the label. Miles grinned. “Least I’ll always have good ole American beer, brewed and owned in the U. S. fuckin’ A.”

Sandy looked like he was going to say something, thought better of it, and turned to ring up the tab on the register.

Miles kept talking. “Been in that plant going on eleven years now. Started when my boy was born. Should be foreman by now, except someone else went to some weak-ass community college and got his pussy degree. I learned every inch of that place the hard way, but no one gives a rat’s ass when you don’t have the paper. If I wanted to, I could steal the place blind.”

“You could fix it so they’d never even know,” Sandy said tiredly. He’d been hearing the same line for a couple of years.

“Damn right. Know where the cameras are, know how to sneak a case out off the line before inventory. Shit, I could sell them filters out of my trunk by the dozen at every garage and gas station from here to the state line. Get my boy back from his mother.”

“Might even get your car off the impound lot. You’d have have to find the scratch first.”

Miles nodded sourly and drank his beer. “Every great plan has a hitch. Need someone to stake me is all. I got the know-how, I got the skills.” He shook his head. “Someone’s letting a great opportunity go to waste.”

Sandy rolled his eyes, and moved down the bar to re-up other customers. The guy next to Miles, whose beard might have looked like an Arab’s if it weren’t for the waxed handlebar stache, turned to wave him down. Miles eyed his lime-green drink, noticed nobody was eying him back, and took a slug to find out what the commotion was about. He gagged on brine. The son of a bitch was drinking goddamn pickle juice. He slid the drink back in front of the idiot, who finished it off without noticing a thing. Miles tried to rinse his mouth with the dregs of his “America”, but the pickle taste lay on his tongue like a soiled rug.

He was about to make an escape when a hand dropped on his shoulder. He looked up to see who it was, but then a cool voice echoed in his other ear. “Sandy says you’re looking for a business partner. That right?”

Miles twisted to look the newcomer in the face, but he was pressed so close to him that he couldn’t move. “I…I might have a line on some oil filters fell off a truck.”

“Really, now. Funny how only pissants like you ever see those boxes tumble to the ground.”

“You a cop?” Miles said. “I don’t know nothin’ for sure.” He strained to get up, but the hand was heavy as death.

The voice caressed his ear. “Better than that,” it told him. “I’m your dream come true. Let me buy you a drink.”

“I think I’ve had enough,” Miles whispered. “I gotta go to work in the morning.”

“You can go to your shit job in the morning, and mark time before they steal it out from under you. Or you can listen to a proposition that will make you as rich as you deserve. You know those fuckers in the front office are jerking you around. But I think your plan to screw them over is a good one, and I want to stake you. All I ask is that you take me along for the ride.” He waved for Sandy’s attention.

“You mean you want a cut. Guys like you, I bet that means most of it.”

“You got me all wrong.” Miles still couldn’t get a good view of who was talking to him, but the voice sounded genuinely hurt. “I just want to make sure you get what you deserve. I hear you got a kid you don’t see as much as you like. Deal?”

Another Bud, one with a regular label, appeared. “Drink up, Miles,” his new best friend said. “I’ll see you at the end of your shift tomorrow. I’ve got work to do in the meantime.”

Miles took a long, shaking pull from the bottle. It must have been a bad batch, gone skunky. He pushed it away and watched the man glide toward the front of the bar. His long black coat billowed behind him as he opened the door and disappeared into the night.

“Screw it,” he said, emptying the bottle. “You don’t shit on free beer.” He threw the last of his greenbacks on the bar and followed the man outside.

The cold air braced him, and Miles felt halfway to sober. Hunched up in his thin windbreaker, he shoved his hands in his pockets and quick-marched home, avoiding some road construction. The old intersection had been named after his grandfather, but now, thanks to all the McMansions going up, it needed to expand, and the town decided to rename it after the principal investor. No one had bothered to ask Miles what he thought.

He stumbled along for two miles, past overgrown, abandoned apple orchards. A sign claimed a mall would sprout there next summer. Once he saw the glowing red eyes of something—he hoped a deer—watching him from the trees. He pulled his jacket tighter and steamed toward his room, at the top back of a converted two-family. Only when he made the turn up the wooden fire-escape to his door did he notice his car sitting in the paved backyard. He scrambled down the steps to make sure.

It was his, all right. No mistaking the old Cougar’s crumpled left fender. He fished in his pockets for the keys and let himself in. The tank was full, for Christ’s sake. Miles checked under the seat, and smiled when he found the hunting knife he kept between the springs. The guy was true to his word, and then some.

The excitement of getting his car back dissipated when he got to work on time the next morning. Now he’d have to spend the whole goddamned day on the line without an excuse. The crush of machinery deafened him as it pressed resined paper into circular accordion folds, stamped out springs, stacked them into oil filters and eventually packed them into boxes. Half a dozen workers in smocks and goggles shepherded the process. Even Miles understood there was only a short hop between them and the robots, and then what? He took his own gear from his locker and joined the breathing drones one more time.

By lunch, he had squirreled away five cases of filters in strategic points across the plant. He’d have to wait until quitting time before he could maneuver them to his car, which he’d parked ass-out at the end of the lot, so he could get it all in the trunk out of view of the exterior cameras. He got the feeling the foreman had an eye on him from the window that overlooked the operating floor, but no one said anything. Then, the prick left at the stroke of five. Miles hung back so he could slide the boxes closer to the delivery bay door.

They were stacked neatly, ready to go. Nearly three bills’ worth of uninventoried merch to unload at his leisure, now that he had wheels. He turned for the locker room, where he could hang up his filthy smock. Before he took a single step, though, the steel door echoed beneath a pounding fist. As if someone knew he would be standing there at that precise moment. Except it wasn’t just “someone.” He didn’t know why he hesitated. After all, if it weren’t for the guy’s help, Miles would be getting ready for a hour-long stroll along the highway. He punched the button and the door rattled up.

The man loomed larger than Miles had remembered him. He still wore the same flowing black coat, and from this angle, he seemed to fill the entire door. His face was warped in a permanent scowl. His eyes, yellow like an eagle’s, smoldered with hatred. “Surprised?” he asked curtly. None of last night’s friendliness.

“Of course not.” Miles stepped aside to let him pass. “Thanks for the car, by the way.”

The man brushed him aside. He strode through the plastic strips that separated the loading bay from the main area of the factory floor. “Foreman’s office?” he said, pointing to the second-floor windows.

“Yeah, right up there. I don’t have the key or nothing, though.” Miles screwed up his face. “You never said what you were going to do.”

The man in the black coat looked at him and smiled. “Didn’t think I had to. Go load up your car, then come back. Still have that knife under the seat?” Miles nodded. “We might need that, too.”

It took three trips to get the cases in his trunk, and Miles was glad to do it alone. When he was finished, he slid the knife from the driver’s seat, tucking it in his belt. It was getting dark, and orange light shone from the office window like a beacon. The shadow of his partner—or at least his benefactor—fluttered from the desk to the file cabinets. Something inside of Miles relaxed. White collar crime might bring in more dough for his partner than the scam Miles was pulling, but so what? They both got what they wanted, and Miles wouldn’t be able to spend more than a few hundred at a time anyhow. And he had his car back. The mark of a good partnership was that everyone made out.

He hopped up on the loading dock and ducked inside the door. He hovered awkwardly, unsure of his role. Should he go up and ask if the guy needed anything? Or just wait? Maybe he just needed Miles to set the alarm as they left.

The sharp smell of oily smoke burned at his nose. What Miles had thought was just the dim glow of light bulbs turned out to be a fire. The line machinery danced in the flickering light. Why hadn’t the alarms gone off, or the sprinklers? Why hadn’t the man come out of the office? He ran for the metal steps and took them two at a time. Smoke rolled out of the office now. He crouched against the heat, inching toward the door. The flames had engulfed the room, but he heard the man calling feebly for help.

Miles hesitated. The filters were in his car, and no one would know he’d been here if he just took off now. He might even be able to get another case or two on his way. If the place burned down, it wouldn’t matter, and they’d find this guy’s body and it wouldn’t have anything to do with Miles. On the other hand, the man must have friends, and what if he’d told them he was working a score with Miles? Another cry cut through the crackle of the fire. He put his hand on the door frame, but pulled it back when it burned his palm.

“Please,” the man groaned. “It hurts so bad. Help me.”

Miles steeled himself, then jumped into the burning room. He dropped to his knees. “Where are you?” he said, choking on the fumes. A flaming ceiling panel fell on his back and burned through his shirt. His hair and eyebrows were singed. “Where are you?”

Miles never felt the knife leave his belt, but he did feel it cut through his ribs, the serrated blades hacking through bone. “Right here, partner,” the man whispered in his ear. “A couple key strokes, and three bank accounts transferred to my offshore account. No one will ever find it. Instead, they’ll find you here, and your car loaded with stolen goods, and figure, ‘the lousy bastard just had to go back for one more thing, the stupid shit.’ ”

The realization hit him that the guy had never actually said Miles would make a dime out of this. Never even promised he’d get to see his son one more time. The heat and the blood loss were overcoming Miles, but he choked out, “They’ll see I was stabbed. And Sandy will remember you from the bar.”

“Doubt it,” the man said. He tore a strip of aluminum runner from the ceiling. The hot metal seared Miles’ guts as it impaled him, fixing him to the floor. He was still conscious when the factory roof caved in on him, and his last thought was that maybe he should have negotiated a better deal.