Monday, October 2, 2017

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Dead Fish, fiction by Tom Barlow

The last thing Ryan asked of Jenny before he left to photograph a member directory for St. Michael Catholic Church was that she carry the three boxes of Christmas decorations his mother had given them that were currently cluttering the hallway up to the attic of their rental duplex.
"I'm not your Sherpa," she muttered as she nudged one of the boxes with her toe to gauge its weight.
He hefted his camera bag and the case containing his umbrellas and backgrounds. "You don't work today. I'm thinking you could fit it into your schedule between Ellen and one of the judge shows."  
"Why is it I watch that crap one day when I'm sick and you never let me live it down?"
He chuckled. "If you really want to get your doctorate, you need to use your time more productively."
"There you go again ragging on me for having ambition."
"I'm not sure if you were Dr. Moss that you'd be happy living with a simple photographer." He was still smiling, but there was a sharper tone in his voice. She was familiar with his insecurity; dealing with it 24/7 was the most exhausting part of her life, even more than hustling tables at the local Olive Garden.
She was relieved when he finally left.
  1. ***
The boxes weren't heavy, but they were bulky enough that she couldn't carry more than one at a time. The final flight was up a pull-down ladder, forcing her to ascend with the box held over her head. When she set it down in the unfinished attic she kicked up a plume of dust, which triggered a sneezing attack.
As she wiped her nose, she took in the contents of the attic. Three straight chairs in need of recaning. An ancient school desk, complete with ink well. Rolls of old wallpaper. A dress form. A canvas Army messenger bag, gnawed upon. A bed frame, disassembled.   
There were a number of boxes. One, lacking a top, was full of books. She picked up a geography text, discovered that at the time of printing Arizona was still a territory. Curious about what else might be in the box, she dug deeper.
A few layers down she came upon a package swathed in many layers of tissue and held together with tape. The yellowed tape was so old it fell off the tissue as she lifted it.  
Jenny placed the package on the desk and gently unwrapped it. Within, she found four picture books by Dr. Seuss; And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Horton Hatches an Egg, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, and The King's Stilts. They appeared to be in perfect condition, and peeking at the title page of each, she found they had been signed by "Ted (aka Dr. Seuss)" for a child named April. Each appeared to be a first edition from the late 1930s or early 1940s.
She left the books sitting on the desk as she made two more trips downstairs to haul decorations. As she worked, she deliberated. Did their landlady, Alice Appleton, know what was in the attic? The top books had been covered with as much dust as the floor, suggesting they hadn't been handled in decades. It was probable that a previous owner or renter had stored the box, and Alice had no idea what was up there.
Still, she thought, perhaps the books weren't worth much. She carried them downstairs where she went online and searched for similar books. She found that if indeed she had authentic signed first editions, the four would sell for something in the neighborhood of $12,000 apiece.
Jenny wasn't by nature a greedy woman, but she was obsessed with returning to school for her doctorate in comparative lit, with the goal of landing a teaching job at a university, and she couldn't help but consider the value of what she'd found. If she sold the books, even if she had to go through a dealer, she could probably clear $40,000. Never to wait on tables again, or end up driving school buses as her mother had done to put bread on their table. If she could just convince Ryan; he found a new reason to discourage her every time she brought school up, mostly financial.
The books were resting on the coffee table when Ryan arrived home after the all-day shoot. He dropped his equipment in the living room corner where it lived and joined her on the couch, where she was on her second Rolling Rock and rereading Chaucer.
"Have a rough day?" she asked, handing him her beer.
He drained the bottle and dropped his head back onto the couch cushion. "Everybody watches those reality shows, so now they all want to strike dramatic poses. Just try to get them to just look at the freaking camera and sit still." As he spoke, he noticed the books on the coffee table. "What are those?"
"My doctorate," she said, and explained how she'd come about them.
"$48,000? For Dr. Seuss? No way."
"I've checked the rare book auction sites."
She wanted to see excitement on his face, something echoing hers, but as usual she could tell he was looking for the black cloud.
His mouth screwed up into kewpie lips. "They belong to our landlady, don't they?"
"I figure they've been there for fifty years, and she only bought the place five years ago. She has no idea what's in the attic."
"So you're suggesting we steal them from her?" He crossed his arms.
"Do you think for a moment Bruce or Willard would pass on such an opportunity?" She was tired of him bringing up his brothers every time they discussed starting a family, and was rather pleased with herself for finding a way to twist them to bolster her point of view.
"Maybe so," he conceded. "But if they did, it would be for the betterment of their families."
"So it's OK to steal to buy braces for the kids but wrong to steal to launch a career?"
"It's not right either way, just more understandable."
"OK, then let's make a deal. I spend what I need for school, and we save the rest for our firstborn."
She hoped this would alter the conversation; Ryan, envious of his brothers' growing families, was hot to reproduce, while she'd postponed, diverted, all but declined. She had as her example her sister Elaine, who had her first child out of wedlock and was trapped now in the daily grind of working in a call center and parenting an autistic child. No time for a real life.
Sure enough, he leaped at the bait. "You're finally ready to start a family?"
"After grad school, once I've landed a faculty gig."
His eyebrows lowered. "I still can't see it. If Alice found out, we could go to jail, and what kind of parents would we be then?"
Jenny rubbed her forehead, where another headache was brewing. "Why don't I feel out Alice, see if she has any inkling of what's in the attic?"
"How are you going to do that? Hypnotize her?"
"Leave that to me."
  1. ***
            Alice lived in half of another duplex two blocks east of Jenny and Ryan in downtown Zanesville. Determined to quiz her about the attic contents, Jenny didn't delay, knowing herself well enough to know she'd only grow more anxious if she waited.
The weather was beautiful, a winter day in the thirties with blue skies and no wind, new snow accenting the trim on houses. As she walked up the steps to Alice Appleton's front door, the flicker of a television set reflected on the blinds. She rang the doorbell, stepped back to allow room for the door to open.
Alice answered a moment later. She was in her seventies, frail with a slight stoop and hunched shoulders, like someone who had spent her life scrubbing shirts on a washboard. She wore her white hair in a short bob parted on the left, and glasses the size of motorcycle goggles.
She stood in the doorway, didn't invite Jenny in. "Something wrong with the house?"
Jenny put her hands up. "No, no, nothing like that. I was out for a walk, and thought I'd stop by to ask if it was OK if we stored some boxes in the attic."
"Of course. I thought I told you that when you moved in."
"I must have forgotten. Anyway, I noticed there are a few rolls of old wallpaper up there. Would you mind if I used one of them as shelf liners? It'd be real pretty."
"I've been meaning to clear out those attics since I bought the place," Alice said. "Do people collect old wallpaper?"
"I can't imagine," Jenny said, trying to remain calm as she realized she might have just inspired the opposite reaction of that she was hoping for.
"Let me check before you do anything. I hate to leave money on the table."
"OK. But it's all right to store some boxes up there?"
"Sure. Just don't disturb anything that's already up there."
"Of course not."
Jenny said her goodbyes and walked double-time back home, cursing Ryan under her breath. If he hadn't been such a moralistic asshole the sale could be a done deal. Now, what if Appleton noted that the dust on the top books had been disturbed? Certainly, she would wonder if something had been taken. If they suddenly came into money and she found out, she would suspect them. She was that kind of woman.
"She doesn't know and doesn't care what's up there," she reported to Ryan that evening as he watched her shove a frozen pizza in the oven. The lie slid glibly off her tongue, to her surprise. She'd never been one to dissemble comfortably, especially to her husband, but perhaps she'd never faced such stakes before.
"Still doesn't mean it's right," he said.
"Damn it, listen to me. This is our chance. We don't take this, it could be years before we have enough money to start a family."
"You keep rubbing children in my face, and I don't think you mean it. I think you're afraid of kids.  And you'd do anything to get into grad school."
"And you'd do anything to keep me as a waitress," she said, tossing a potholder at his head. She strode out of the kitchen so that he wouldn't see her cry.
Jenny felt trapped; if she sold the books, she'd have a hard time concealing the transaction from her husband and if she left a paper trail that Alice could follow she could end up in jail.
However, her mother had spent Jenny's entire childhood complaining about her stubborn nature, and that trait hadn't faded as she matured, although Ryan had broken through more than a few times. Now, however, she was determined to make her discovery pay, but to do so she would have to be devious. Luckily, she knew a devious person who might help her, Ryan's sister Sarah.
Sarah was a few years older than Ryan, single again after a second brief marriage; her sultry beauty seemed to draw men like free beer, but they didn't stick. She was living suspiciously well off the income from a job delivering car parts to garages for a local retailer, taking frequent vacations to St. Kitts and Aruba.
Jenny had learned from a trusted friend that Sarah funded these trips by dealing coke, knowledge she hadn't shared with Ryan for fear he'd attempt to step in and set her right, which could only result in a family drama fest. Perhaps if Sarah was willing to take big risks for modest reward, Jenny reasoned, she would be willing to take a small risk for a big reward.
She waited for a couple of days, until Ryan had an evening shoot at a Lions Club fundraiser, to drive to Cambridge, a half hour east, to pay a call on Sarah. She'd called ahead to make sure she was home.
"Promise you won't tell Mom my house is a disaster," Sarah said as she waved Jenny inside.
"I'm the last person to criticize anyone's housekeeping," Jenny said, following her into the living room.
She was surprised at the furnishings, the 60-inch television, Bose sound bar, xBox One, leather couch and recliner, and a thick wool oriental rug that filled the room from corner to corner.
They took seats and chatted for a couple of minutes about family and work before Sarah said, "That's not why you drove all the way over here. You've been in the family for what? Four years? And you never visited before, so why now?"
Jenny reached into her bag and brought out the books. "I have a problem I thought you might help me with. It'll benefit us both."
She explained about the value of the books, how she came about them, what needed to be done to transform them into cash. She could feel herself blush as she talked.
Sarah finished the glass of beer at her elbow before saying, "So you want me to be your partner in crime? I believe they call what you want me to do fencing stolen property."  
"You wouldn't be the one doing the stealing; that would be on me. You could just blame me if anyone questions it."
Sarah wore a brittle smile. "You must not think much of me."
"Not at all. I just figured you for someone who would see this the way I do. As an opportunity that I shouldn't pass on."
"And we don't tell Ryan about it, because he's too honest."
"I don't know as he's all that honest, but certainly has a stick up his ass about this."
"And what's my cut?" Sarah said.
"Five grand. Seem fair?"
"For the risk you want me to take, I think half is more like it."
Jenny had figured all along that Sarah wouldn't settle for less than half, and $20,000 would cover most of her degree costs as a commuting student. "OK. Half."
"There's no question I could use that money. Give me the books. Now, how am I supposed to sell these suckers?"
Excited, Jenny called her faculty advisor Ben Bishop at Ohio State before work the next morning. She reached his machine. The sound of his voice reminded her of the crush she'd borne for him in Modern American Lit 401 four years before, in her senior year.
He returned her call within the hour. "I expected to hear from you long before now," he said, "as eager as you were to do grad work."
"Life intruded," she said. "In the form of money. That's why I'm calling, actually. I think I have enough to apply now. What should I do next?"
He explained the school calendar; she'd have to hustle to submit her application in time to be considered for the next class of masters candidates.
"I remember our last conversation," he said. "I came away from that wondering something. I hope you don't mind me saying this, but we get a lot of students who spend a shitload of money for a degree and discover when they're done that they had no intention of making a career out of it; they were just hiding out from life. If the latter, I usually counsel them to take the leap, get a job, and put school behind them."
Jenny chewed on his comment for a minute. Was she simply looking to leave her mundane life for the bright lights of university? Or was she ready to devote the rest of her life to literature?
"No," she finally said, "I'm in it for the right reasons."
"Well, then, congratulations. I'm sure that with your grades and our recommendations, you'll have no trouble getting in. If you can afford it."
"No problem," she said, crossing her fingers.
Jenny haunted the rare book sale Internet site she'd chosen for the sale. The books showed up two days later, coincidently the same day that Ryan thought to ask about them. She told him that she'd put them back, buried deep in the box of books. He took her apparent meek surrender as though it was a victory, making her even more content that she'd decided to circumvent him.
Fearing Appleton's visit, she collected a cup of dust from an unused corner of the basement and, using a flour sifter, carefully spread it across the books on top of the box in the attic, so that she would not suspect they'd been unpacked.
To her delight, the Dr. Seuss books sold for almost exactly what she'd expected. Jenny called Sarah the minute the auction ended, but she didn't answer, so Jenny left a message on her cell asking for a return call.
"You're sure in a good mood," Ryan said that evening when he came to find his favorite supper dish, steak poivre.
"It's our three-and-a-half-year anniversary," she said as she scooped Brussels sprouts out of the bamboo steamer.
"You must have a better reason than that." He pulled the cork on the cheap red wine she'd bought with the steaks.
"Well, I do as a matter of fact. I was talking to my advisor about grad school and he said that I might be able to get enough grants and loans to pay my way through the doctoral program."
Ryan quietly poured them each a few fingers of wine, picked up his glass, and drained it. "That's great," he said. "At this rate, you'll be forty and trying to conceive, and we'll still be paying off your loans."
Jenny kept calling Sarah for the next week, but, to her distress, the woman never returned her calls. Finally, one morning after Ryan left for a shoot she drove to Cambridge. No one answered at Sarah's house, so she stopped by the shop for which she did deliveries.
She had to wait for almost an hour before Sarah returned from running a cam shaft to Quaker City. When she saw Jenny standing in the store she pointed toward the door. Jenny stepped outside and Sarah joined her there a moment later, pausing to light a cigarette.
"You get the money yet?" Jenny said. She had not noticed until now that Sarah was so much taller.
"Yeah, about the money. I have some bad news." She was standing uncomfortably close to Jenny.
"What's that?"
"The thing is, I need it all; I owe quite a bit of money to people who have a nasty way of dealing with debtors. And it occurred to me that you can't tell anybody about it without incriminating yourself."
Jenny's jaw dropped. "You mean, you're keeping it? After we agreed?"
"You thought I was such a moron that you could set me up to take the fall if we were caught. I'm not that stupid.
"And here's something to keep in mind in case you're thinking of opening your mouth; I did the entire deal in your name. I even had a driver's license made with your name and my picture on it, so when I cashed the check it was as Jennifer Moss."
"How could you be so mean?" Jenny said, stepping back from her.
Sarah chuckled. "I'm the black sheep of the family, and I could give a fuck what they think. Or what you think. So thanks for the cash. And forget about revenge." She opened her coat far enough to reveal a holstered pink 9mm pistol clipped to her belt.
Jenny was at a loss for a reply. She was normally a passive person, but now a rage burned inside her; if she'd had a weapon, she wasn't sure she could control herself. But she could see from the sneer on Sarah's face that she wasn't afraid of Jenny.
Holding back tears, she returned to her car, avoiding eye contact with Sarah, who watched her the whole way.
Jenny started back to Zanesville, but before she reached the freeway, the rage broke through the numb veneer. Fuck Sarah. And fuck Ryan too. She stopped at the Home Depot and bought a crow bar.
Returning to Sarah's bungalow, she pried the door open and spent the next half-hour turning the place inside out looking for the money. She didn't bother to keep things neat, dumping drawers, dragging the mattress from the box spring, ripping the TV from the wall and letting it fall to the floor.
She left with nothing except the satisfaction of destroying Sarah's belongings. The cash was too well hidden.
Jenny knew she shouldn't answer her cell phone that evening when Sarah called, but she was still furious at the woman and wanted the chance to gloat. She was also emboldened by the bottle of wine she'd consumed in an attempt to quell her distress.
"You stupid bitch," Sarah said without preamble. "You think you can do this to me and get away with it, you're nuts."
"What are you going to do? Steal more money from me? Oh wait; you've already stolen it all."
"You still don't get it, do you? I'm not someone to fuck with. You're going to find that out."
"Bring it on. I've got nothing more to lose."
"You think not? Just wait."
A knock on the door the next morning after Ryan had left for work fulfilled Sarah's threat. There stood their landlady, scowling.
Apprehensive, Jenny opened the door. Alice stepped inside uninvited.
"I had an anonymous call this morning," she said, unzipping her coat. "The caller told me you found some old books in the attic and sold them for $40,000. I looked at the online auction site where she suggested I look, and guess what? There they were, some old Dr. Seuss."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Jenny said, struggling with her composure.
"You know how I came about this house? I bought it from my great-aunt. In a way, it's been in the family for a hundred years. I called my mom's cousin. She remembers my great-uncle buying those books for his daughter April on business trips; he was a gem dealer and made trips to New York City four times a year. She thought they'd been lost."
Jenny felt as though a cold hand was running up and down her spine as her dream of grad school, now destroyed, gave way to a new vision, of prison. Rage and fear contended again within her, and she couldn't think of anything to do but lie. "If there were books up there, they should still be there. I haven't taken anything."
"Then let's go check, shall we?" Alice started up the stairs. Jenny followed.
When they reached the second floor landing, Alice grasped the rope that pulled down the ladder. As Jenny watched, panicked, she began to climb.
Acting on instinct, Jenny waited until Alice had climbed the first four steps before she stepped over, grabbed both ankles and tugged them free of the ladder. Her landlady came flying down, striking her head on the third rung, landing at the head of the first floor stairs, then tumbling down them to come to rest by the front door.
Jenny raced down the stairs to the supine body, reached out to her neck, aghast at what she'd done. She found no pulse. She sat numbly for few minutes waiting to make sure Alice didn't come back to life, before calling 9-1-1 to report that her landlady had fallen down the stairs.
After the emergency squad, then the police left, both satisfied that Alice's death was an accident, Jenny, shocked at her own behavior, found that the guilt over what she had done did not entirely override the rage at losing her dream. Having murdered, she was forced to face the fact that she was no longer the mousey academic she'd thought herself to be. She felt emboldened, reckless, with a sense of unfinished business.
Ryan wasn't due home for a couple of hours yet, so, after stewing over her situation for a while, she grabbed her purse,  a roll of duct tape and her latex gloves and headed to the local gun shop. There she purchased a Taser she couldn't afford and a can of pepper spray.  
The sun was setting behind her as she arrived in Cambridge. She pulled into a space in front of the house that Sarah rented. Her sister-in-law's Silverado was parked by the front door.
Jenny approached the stoop, her gloved finger on the pepper spray in her jacket pocket. Swallowing nervously, she knocked on the front door, then stepped to one side so that she wasn't immediately visible when the door opened.
Sarah answered a moment later. As she opened the door, Jenny stepped forward and sprayed her in the face. Sarah spun away, bringing both hands to her face and coughing violently. Jenny stepped inside, closed the door, pulled the Taser out of her other pocket and fired it at Sarah.
As soon as the contacts hit her in the back, Sarah convulsed and fell to the floor, temporarily paralyzed. Jenny plucked Sarah's pistol from her holster, then quickly spun duct tape around her arms and legs until she was incapacitated.
Jenny stood over her. "Where's my money?"
Sarah shook her head as she regained control of her muscles, laughed, coughed, laughed again. "Jesus; what's got into you? You some kind of Ninja killer now? Like that could ever happen."
"You made me whatever I am now."
"Oh bullshit. You're the one that decided to steal the books. There's a streak of larceny a foot wide down your back."
"Fuck that. Where's the money?"
"What are you going to do? Kill me if I don't tell you?"
"Good idea," Jenny said. She ripped off one piece of duct tape and pressed across Sarah's mouth, another to cover her nostrils, then stepped back and waited, feeling powerful like she never had before.
Finally she saw panic in Sarah's eyes as she thrashed around on the floor. She waited until the woman was turning blue before she removed the tape.
"Had enough?" she said.
"It's in my purse," Sarah said between gasps. "You know I'm going to kill you for this."
"Not if I get you first." Jenny ripped off two more pieces of tape, applied them again to Sarah's mouth and nose.
Sure enough, the money, in hundreds, was in the bottom of Sarah's voluminous purse.
Jenny was surprised to find she wasn't particularly upset by her actions. Unlike the murder of Alice, for which she felt contrite, this felt like justice.
By the time Jenny left, the woman had quit struggling.
At Sarah's funeral, Ryan, Willard and Bruce struggled to accept that their sister could have been killed, as the Cambridge Police believed, over a drug deal gone bad. "They said they'd been watching her for over a year, trying to catch her wholesaling shit to local dealers," Bruce said.
Jenny eavesdropped, hoping that Ryan bought the story too. Her application had gone out that morning, and she wasn't about to allow anyone to come between her and grad school.
Not even her husband.
           She fingered the pink pistol in her pocket.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Uninhabited, fiction by Michael Bracken

As I rounded the corner of the one-room stone cabin and stopped, Melita Blanco rose naked from the hot spring twenty feet beyond, the cold breeze blowing through the canyon causing her pale olive skin to dimple and her nipples to tighten. Silver-threaded black hair hung wetly to her shoulders, dripping water that slid down her once-familiar curves to catch in the thick black triangle at the juncture of her thighs. When she bent over, I thought she was reaching for the towel atop a pile of her clothing. She wasn’t. As she straightened, Melita gripped a semi-automatic pistol in both hands and pointed it at me. Beautiful as she was standing there in all her naked glory, I could not tear my gaze away from the business end of the pistol. She asked, “Why are you here?”

“I’m looking for John.”

“He isn’t here,” she said. “You have a warrant?”

I shook my head. “I have a client.”

Melita’s eyes narrowed and her head tilted a few degrees to the left, the way she looked when she didn’t understand something.

I told her I had grown weary of internal politics that promoted bad officers over good, so after twenty years on the force I retired to open my own private investigations firm. “Two weeks ago Carter Preston walked into my office.”

She took the news in stride. “What does he want?”

“His diamonds.”

“Your client’s a fool.”

“A fool with a bank account big enough to get me to come to this godforsaken place.” Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers had named the Big Bend area of Texas el despoblado--the uninhabited. That Melita had disappeared into one of the area’s many canyons only a few weeks before her husband’s release from Huntsville had complicated my search. I asked, “Why the gun?”

“There’s a spot a mile down river where it’s easy to cross, so people do. Sometimes they wander into this canyon by mistake. This”--she waved the pistol--“encourages them to keep moving.”

“You can put it down,” I said. “I’m not armed.”

She motioned with the pistol’s muzzle.

I took off my jacket and dropped it to the ground. Then I raised my shirt and turned slowly.

“Pants, too.”

After I lifted each of my pant legs to prove that I did not wear an ankle holster, Melita lowered her weapon. Not bothering with her underthings, she dressed while I tucked in my shirt and retrieved my jacket. As she put the pistol in the waistband of her jeans, she asked, “How’d you find me?”

“I remembered something you’d once said,” I told her, “about going back to your family’s roots if you ever wanted to get away.”

One night, when our relationship was still young and exciting, we had shared family histories. Melita’s traced their arrival in what became the state of Texas back to an eighteenth-century Spanish land grant that stretched across the Rio Grande not far from the modern border of Big Bend National Park. Land of no value to anyone else--despite efforts to sell it to the Texas Legislature when they established Texas Canyons State Park in 1933 and again in 1944 when the federal government acquired the state park to create the national park--the family had retained possession down through the generations.

My family history is less impressive. I am a first generation Texan, born to parents who moved to the state during an oil boom and who couldn’t leave when the boom went bust. All I inherited was a name that had probably been changed by an overworked clerk several generations earlier when a great-great-grandfather new to America presented a surname long on consonants but short on vowels.

Melita directed me into the cabin, where I saw the unmade bed and dirty dishes on the table containing the remains of a meal for two.

“You said John wasn’t here.”

“He left before you arrived.”

“Where’d he go?”

“Over the border.”

“He coming back?”

“He damn well better.”

“Then we’ll wait.” I pulled back one of the chairs, sat, and folded my arms across my chest.

I had been on the job almost nine years when John Keitel and Ernie Galvan walked into Preston’s Diamond Superstore one evening just before closing and tried to leave with several thousand dollars in cash and five million dollars worth of uncut diamonds. Armed with a .38 and a concealed carry permit, Carter Preston shot Galvan twice in the chest while Keitel ran.

Galvan died at the scene. Keitel was arrested less than forty-eight hours later. Charged with robbery and with aggravated robbery, his defense had been perfunctory, emphasizing only that neither he nor Galvan had been armed. Convicted of the lesser charge, Keitel served ten years in Huntsville. Though most of the cash had been found in his apartment, the diamonds had never been recovered.

I had no involvement in any part of the investigation at the time and only knew of the robbery, arrest, and conviction through news reports and random station chatter. Melita never spoke of her husband during our time together--she didn’t wear a ring, hadn’t taken Keitel’s name, and gave no indication she was married until she used her marriage to justify ending our relationship--but Preston had filled in a few gaps in my knowledge when he hired me. I had pieced the rest together on my own, including my unexpected connection to a crime more than ten years in the past.

Melita cleared the table, piled the dishes in the sink, and then settled onto the chair opposite mine. She looked me over.

I was sweating. The walk from my truck over uneven terrain had taken more than an hour. Had I been on horseback or driven an ATV, I might have cut the travel time significantly. I also would have telegraphed my arrival long before I walked around the corner of the cabin, and I would not have caught Melita in the altogether. I said, “You still look good.”

“And I’m still married.”

“There was a time when that didn’t matter.”

“A woman has needs,” she said. “With John in Huntsville, my needs weren’t being met.”

“So you picked up a cop?”

“I didn’t know what you were when I met you.”

“You knew soon enough,” I said, “and you strung me along for another two years.”

“You never complained.”

I never did. “Did you always know you were returning to your husband? Is that why you didn’t tell me you were married?”

“If I had told you I was married,” she said, “and if I’d told you why my husband wasn’t around, what would have happened?”

“Exactly what did happen,” I said, “only sooner. A cop banging a felon’s wife doesn’t look good.”

”You aren’t a cop now.”

“Your husband could walk through that door any minute,” I said.

“He could,” she agreed, “but he isn’t due back until tomorrow.”

We stared at one another across the table. I don’t know what Melita was thinking, but I was remembering all those nights we’d spent together. I reached across the table and took her hand. She didn’t resist when I stood, pulled her from her seat, and covered her lips with mine. Soon enough we were in the bed with our clothes strewn around the room.

Our sex was hard and fast and left us breathless.

“God, I missed you,” Melita said when we finished. Then she added, “I should have shot you when I first saw you.”


Early the next morning, I heard a motorcycle approaching from a distance, so I climbed from the bed and dressed. Melita remained where she was and watched from under the covers as I sat again at the table.

The motorcycle engine sputtered to silence outside and a moment later John Keitel slammed into the cabin. “They’re offering thirty cents on the dollar, that’s--”

“--a million five,” I said, finishing his sentence.

Keitel turned when he heard my voice. “Who the fuck are you?”

I told him my name, told him I was a private investigator, and told him I’d been hired to find him. I didn’t tell him I was the guy who warmed his wife’s bed for several years while he was in Huntsville and had warmed it again the previous night when he was across the border.

“Who wants to find me?”

“Carter Preston.”

“I should have killed that s.o.b. as soon as I got out.”

“He wants his diamonds back,” I said. “I’m pretty sure you have them.”

From the bed, Melita said, “We do.”

I glanced at her. There was something I didn’t understand. “Why does Preston want the diamonds? He’s already collected from the insurance company.”

“That was the arrangement,” Keitel explained. “We were to keep the cash and return the diamonds to Preston after the insurance company paid off. He wasn’t supposed to shoot Ernie. He wasn’t supposed to shoot anybody. That wasn’t part of the deal.”

Keitel continued. If what he said was true, Preston planned to cut the diamonds and work them into his stock, selling the stolen jewels as earrings, engagement rings, and tennis bracelets.

“Ernie and I expected to earn a quarter mill each for one evening’s work.”

“And Preston would net four-and-a-half million.”

Melita said, “He still could if he gets the diamonds back.”

Ignoring her, I asked Keitel, “How did you hook up with Preston?”

Keitel cut his eyes toward his wife and the pieces began to fall into place. Before I could complete the puzzle in my mind, the door slammed open again and Carter Preston burst into the stone cabin, his fist wrapped around a .38, the gun blazing.

Two slugs caught Keitel in the chest, dropping him where he stood, and Preston swung the .38 in my direction. I don’t know if he would have shot me or not, but he didn’t have the opportunity. As soon as the door slammed open, Melita rolled from the bed, retrieved her semi-automatic pistol from the jumble of clothing on the floor, and came up with it gripped in both hands.


He turned at the sound of Melita’s voice, and I saw the look in his eyes when he recognized her. “What are you doing here?”

A single shot dropped Preston.

Melita kept the pistol in both hands.

I said, “This is where I walked in, isn’t it?”

She didn’t laugh. Instead she nodded at Preston’s body and asked, “How did he find us?”

“I told him I was coming here,” I said. “He must not have trusted me to returned with his diamonds.”

I looked at the two dead men and the business end of the pistol still aimed at me. When you sleep with someone, you sleep with everyone they’ve ever slept with, and you’re likely to suffer the same mistakes. Like falling in love. I said, “You used all of us.”

“One way or another,” Melita said as she eased across the room and retrieved Preston’s .38, “but I never expected to see you again. If you play this right, you might walk away.”

Preston’s retainer wasn’t near enough money to cover the world of grief I was in, and he wasn’t alive to pay my final invoice. “So, what’s my play?”

“You don’t try to stop me, I don’t shoot you.”

Melita made me move to the far side of the cabin, and she was careful to keep both guns within easy reach even when she needed her hands to dress.

She retrieved the uncut diamonds, which had been hidden beneath a loose floorboard, tossed them and a few of her things into a backpack, and took a key ring from Keitel’s pocket. I followed her to the doorway and watched her straddle her dead husband’s motorcycle and bring it to life. She pointed the motorcycle toward the border and I continued watching until she disappeared from sight.

Melita Blanco’s heart was el despoblado--the uninhabited. Despite making at least three men fall for her, she had loved none of us.

I walked back to my truck, drove until I had cellphone reception, and parked on the side of the road wondering how long I should wait before phoning the sheriff.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review of Nolan Knight’s The Neon Lights Are Veins by James Pate

Nolan Knight
The Neon Lights are Veins
Publisher: 280 Steps
Review by James Pate

I’ve always been drawn to stories about misfits and rebels, individuals existing on the outer fringe who radically take their lives into their own hands, for good or ill. Struggling artists, street-level visionaries, punks, insomniacs, wanderers, the obsessed and the damned.

Nolan Knight’s The Neon Lights Are Veins (280 Steps) is a Californian crime novel teeming with misfits. There’s the protagonist, Alvi Drake, whose legendary days as a skateboarder are behind him, and who is tormented by a painful family history involving a conniving, crazed mother and a recently deceased wife. There’s Mongo, a transvestite dreaming of fame and adoration in a city where she knows the odds are against her. And there’s Faye, a recent arrival to Los Angeles who is struggling against the myriad social forces pushing her toward a life of prostitution. There are others too, in this social orbit – most of the them living in a crumbling apartment building called the Hotel Lafayette -- and taken together, they made me think of Andy Warhol’s Superstars of the late 60s and early 70s, whose drug and sex fueled lives created a micro counterculture. Knight clearly has sympathy for these characters. Neon is one of those noir novels where the so-called deviants are actually the good guys. Even the fetishists are treated with good humor, presented not as sickos but as people with unusual sexual appetites. Knight has a Rabelaisian interest in the diversity of human nature.

The bad guys are the ones after money and power and control. Ray Satin is the ringleader of a group of very violent men who make small fortunes through drugs and pimping. Satin is vicious – his weapon of choice is the screwdriver, which he uses on both men and women, strangers and relatives – and he views other people as rungs on the ladder toward greater wealth. He is a dangerous combination of psychopath and narcissist. As he tells his men early in the book, “Money, power and monopoly—that’s the goal, gentleman—in that order.” When we meet him, he has started to make inroads with the police and City Hall, a move he hopes will pay off with a near total control of the Los Angeles underworld.

There are two factors at work against his grand designs, however: his nephew Rocco, and Alvi Drake. The nephew is sickened by the cruelty of his uncle’s world, even though he participates in that world by helping his uncle literally bury the bodies. He dreams of a more everyday life. While on the campus of UCLA, he imagines himself as just another student. Knight writes, “He reclined the seat and shut his eyes, envisioning dorm room summer nights, intellectualism sandwiched by beer pong and togas. All those great things the movies had promised.” Rocco is trapped in a Tarantino movie but wants to be in a Linklater one. As the story progresses, Rocco’s desire for escape starts to run counter his uncle’s desire for underworld dominance. Alvi Drake, in contrast, is an outsider to Satin’s world. He is looking for a missing ex-girlfriend named Gabby. His quest takes him into a grim, treacherous network where no one but his most immediate friends can be trusted.

Part three of the novel is titled “The Underground Web,” and, like the best of Californian noir, the novel reveals the shadows and back room deals that dwell beneath the sunshine, beaches, and mellow vibes. Knight’s Los Angeles is a double-sided coin: a haven for rebels like Alvi and Mongo, but also a Gothic terrain of nihilistic power grabs.

The last third of the novel is a fragmented, explosive showdown between these two spheres. It’s not giving too much away to say that things do not always go well for the more sympathetic characters. Knight’s novel is strikingly bleak in places, and the more familiar plotline of the good guys handily winning certainly does not apply here. But this pessimism is one of the best elements of the novel, giving it an unexpectedly tragic dimension.

For all of the book’s fatalism, though, Neon is not a depressing work. The narrative has an amphetamine-like intensity. And Knight’s language sings with a streetwise poeticism reminiscent of Hurbert Selby Jr., Lou Reed, and Richard Price. When Alvi walks into a barbershop, he heads “past the candy cane spiral, into the lair of man. Ricky Nelson crooned. Smut rags and nickel pulps cluttered the magazine rack; Lawrence Tierney and Killer Kowalski sneered from mint green walls.” Rocco strolls the through the grounds of UCLA and thinks it is “the Monica Vitti of college campuses: lean, tan, Romanesque—hypnotic to the human eyes.” In The Neon Lights Are Veins, the language is constantly surprising, bouncing around on the balls of its feet.

The publishing history of Knight’s book is an odd one, to say the least. 280 Steps, a Norwegian crime press founded in 2013, published Neon this past winter. A few months later, 280 Steps suddenly ceased to exist. The last time I checked, there were only seven copies of Knight’s novel left to buy online. I hope the book gets re-issued shortly by another press. It’s a fierce, bold work, and deserves a wide readership.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Raising Bigfoot, fiction by Eve Fisher

I was playing three-handed euchre at the Norseman’s Bar with Sam Hegdahl and Carl Jacobson one Tuesday night when Lyle Pederson came in all excited, calling out, “Boys! Got a surprise for you out at my place!”

“More lights in the sky?” Carl asked.

“You betcha. We’re gonna see a lot of crop circles come summer.” Lyle believes in UFOs. He sees a lot of them. He swears they land on his property. He’s made a shrine to them, a bunch of boards set up in a circle around an old baler, like one of them stone things over in England. “You come out in July, you’re gonna see something, all right.”

All I saw last July was a whole lot of wheat flattened down to the ground,” Carl said.

Well, it might have been a circle, if we could have seen it from the air,” I pointed out.

Looked to me a whole lot more like tracks than a circle,” Sam commented. “Government tanks, heading to a UN concentration camp.”

Lyle shook his head. “No, they don’t have nothing like that around here. Harold’s right. You gotta see them from the air. That’s why they make them crop circles, so they can see where to land, right, Randolph?”
Randolph nodded, but he didn’t seem that enthusiastic. Randolph’s one of those young drifters, show up every now and then, and he showed up at Lyle’s. Lyle let him stay on, help around the place.

But they don’t land,” Lyle continued. “I don’t know why. They fly over all right, and I see the lights, but they go over, to Jeb Olson’s place.”

Nobody at the Olson place for ten years,” Sam pointed out.

That’s my point,” Lyle replied. “Nobody goes there, so they could hide them pretty well, over there.”

Well, somebody had to be the goat, so I asked, “What are they hiding, Lyle?”

Lyle leaned over and whispered, “Bigfoot.” Well, he had my attention. “The whole place stinks of Bigfoot.”

You’ll believe anything, won’t you, Lyle?” Sam asked.

Now, Sam, you gotta think this thing through. You’ve seen those shows on TV, hunting Bigfoot? I watched them, learned all about it. Big, hairy ape-like things. And stink, Lord, they stink. You betcha. Now I know they say they’ve been around forever, like some kind of prehistoric man, but that don’t make sense, because there’d be more of them. But what come to me was, what if they’re being bred? You know, by aliens. And you hear about all those alien abductions, that strange stuff they do to folks, well, what if they’re breeding them with humans?”

Well, I was polite, but everyone else laughed themselves silly.

What do you think, Randolph?” Sam asked when he finally got his breath back.

Randolph shrugged. “Who knows? Besides, funny things happen out at the Flats.”

Yeah, and most of them happen ‘cause of liquor and hormones,” Vi said, delivering our beers.

Yeah, well, night before last Louise Sanborn saw them, too,” Lyle put in.

What, Bigfoot?” Vi asked.

No, the aliens,” Lyle explained. “She come out to stargaze, and she saw them. So did Randolph.”

We all looked at Randolph, who admitted, “We saw something.”

Louise says they whooshed right past and went over the horizon,” Lyle added.

So did they kidnap her or what?” Vi asked, glaring. She and Louise are not friends. Some of it has been Randolph, which is ridiculous. Vi’s married, Louise is a deputy sheriff, and he’s way too young for either of them.

Nah,” Lyle said. “But Larry Jensen’s shed was broken into that same night. Took every chemical he had and an old tub.”

The least they could have done was take Louise, too,” Vi said, and walked off.

Yeah, well, listen,” Lyle said, “I want you guys to come out to my place say Friday, Saturday night, and see what me and Randolph have been up to.”

We said sure, and Lyle went away, which was the idea. But he came back. Every night. Circles. Aliens. Bigfoot. By Saturday we recognized that he was going to come back until we went, so Sam and I climbed into Carl’s pick-up and off we went.

Lyle lives way out on the Flats, where the wind howls through like a freight train with nothing to stop it. The Flats make good farmland, but they’re different. Strange things happen out there. Ten years back, a tornado dropped out of a clear sky and whipped through the Flats like a knife through butter, and then vanished. And that was during the day; at night it can scare the crap out of you. Even Sam kept muttering something about “crazy” that sounded right to me.

And then out of the northwest came a blindingly bright light that zoomed in as fast as one of those Star Wars things, and as it came faster and brighter the car swerved and I ducked. When I came back up, the light was gone, the car had stopped, and Carl was gasping.

Wh-wh-what was that?” I asked.

How the hell would I know?” Carl quavered.

Maybe it was aliens,” Sam offered. He knows that deep down Carl and I both believe in aliens, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, Bigfoot, and Bat Boy, especially late at night out in the middle of nowhere, though we don’t care to admit it in public. All Sam believes in is government conspiracy.

You want me to turn this car around and head home?” Carl asked, hands white knuckled on the steering wheel.

Yes,” I said firmly.
Look, let’s just go on to Lyle’s and get this over with,” Sam said. “Maybe he’ll have a drink for us. I’m freezing.”

That got Carl moving.

Lyle was out front when we pulled up dancing around, waving his arms and asking, “Did you see it? Did you see it?”

If you mean that laser beam that went overhead, you betcha, we saw it,” Sam said. “You’re looking awful pleased about this, Lyle.”

Lyle kicked the snow, and I’d bet he was blushing. “It was me.”

What do you mean, it was you?”

Come and take a look.”

We followed Lyle around back. Between the shed and the shrine something bulked in the dark.

What the hell is that?” Sam asked.

It’s my beacon,” Lyle said. He went over and did something and suddenly the same bright light shot out and blinded all of us. He did something else and the light arced into the sky, drowning the stars.

What the hell is that?” Sam repeated.

It’s my beacon,” Lyle repeated. “I was thinking, you know, they’re out there, all right, and they keep coming by, and they signal, and they leave messages, but nobody ever signals back. So I figured, I will. I’ll let ‘em know that we’re looking for them. So I got this baby.” He slapped the metal.

Where did you get it?”

Special ordered it from Minneapolis. Randolph helped me get it all hooked up yesterday. Tested it last night. Ain’t it great?”

He made a blinding circle around the farmyard. “For God’s sake, Lyle,” Sam barked, “turn it off before we get black helicopters buzzing us.”

How much did it cost?” I asked, blinking.

Oh, it set me back some, I can tell you that. You betcha.”

We spent an hour at Lyle’s, looking at everything from the spotlight to his shed. Not that there was anything to see in Lyle’s shed but what you could find on any farm, and if you want an inventory of the contents, just come on up. Lyle loves company. He’ll fix you coffee, fix you sandwiches, want you to spend the night. That’s what he did with us, talking a mile a minute the whole time. When he mentioned the Bigfoot footprints out in the field, I was happy to go, because I figured even Lyle couldn’t keep talking if his face froze shut.

It was a moonlit night so God only knows how Carl slipped. He hit an icy patch – maybe frozen Bigfoot prints – and, being no light-weight, slid pretty far. We had quite a time wrestling him back up to the house. It didn’t help that he’d sprained his ankle, and he was bellowing like a bull elephant with a toothache. It was enough to shake the snow off the trees, especially when we dragged him by his collar up the hill to the main house.

We were met half way by Randolph, looking pretty disheveled and mighty peeved for a hired man with nothing else to do. But he fetched a sled and we rolled Carl onto it and finally got him indoors.
Exhausted, Carl and I sat in Lyle’s warm and musty den while Sam helped Lyle in the kitchen. Randolph had disappeared back into his little cabin out back.

How you doing?” I asked Carl.

Fine,” he said, pulling away at Lyle’s whiskey like it was water.

You gonna be able to drive home?”

Doubt it.”

You gonna let one of us drive you home?”

Le’s spen’ the night here. Lyle won’t mind.” Then he passed out.

Lyle and Sam came in with sandwiches and coffee. “You know,” Lyle said, “I been thinking. I want them to know they’re welcome any time, but I don’t know if they know how to read Morse code or should I do a binary system?”

What are you talking about?” Sam asked.

The aliens. Communicating with them. With the beacon.”

Sam inhaled a sandwich and picked up another. “The only people that’s gonna be reading your messages is the NSA, the UN and the Chinese. They’ll pick you up on satellite and watch your every move.”

They’re welcome, too,” Lyle said simply.

We spent the night at Lyle’s, Carl on the couch and Sam and I bunked down in Lyle’s spare bedroom, but it didn’t work out too well. It wasn’t the cold – I’ve camped in worse – but Carl and Lyle both snored like two trains in a whistling contest.

I been thinking,” Sam said.

Socks in their mouths?” I asked.

What if there is something going on at the Olson place?”

I thought you didn’t believe in Bigfoot?”

I don’t,” Sam snapped. “But there’s something funny going on out here. I’ve had my eye on Randolph a long time. What’s he doing out here, young fella like that?”

He’s getting free room and board.”

Yeah, but that’s not enough to hold a young buck. He wants money, he wants a car, he wants –”

Randolph says he’s ‘not into material things,’” I quoted.

Now you see, that right there is suspicious.” Sam sat up in bed. “That’s not normal. Something’s wrong with that boy. Or he’s out here working for somebody. I’m thinking maybe the UN. Come out here, scouting things out. Lyle’s talk about all that stink out there at the Olson place. All those chemicals stolen from Larry Jensen. You put it all together, and what have you got? Think about it.” All I could think about was how thin Lyle’s walls were. “You got a secret chemical weapons plant, that’s what you’ve got.”

In South Dakota?”

Why not? It’s the perfect place. Out in the middle of nowhere, bunch of farmers, you can get away with anything. Why do you think they picked Randolph to scout? Nice Scandinavian boy, looks just like everybody else. I drove by the Olson place yesterday. To see if there was anything going on.”


Nothing. All boarded up and rotting. But what else would you expect? Anything going on at the Olson place, why, they’d do it at night, when nobody was around, wouldn’t they?” I got up and looked out the window. “Only makes sense. I’ll tell you what, Harold, get your coat on. Let’s go check the Olson place ourselves.”
Shut up.”

Don’t tell me to shut up!”

Shut up,” I repeated. “Someone’s coming out of Randolph’s cabin.”

Sam leaped up beside me. It was Louise Sanborn.

So that’s what Randolph was doing before we showed up,” I said.

And since we’ve been here,” Sam added. “Where’s she going?”

Probably parked down the road a piece.”

She’s no dummy. Didn’t want Lyle to spot her.” Then the cabin door opened again and Randolph came out, all bundled up. But instead of heading after Louise, he headed out towards the footprint field. “I knew it. See? He’s in on it.”

Oh, my God.”

There’s a chemical weapons plant, maybe a whole secret UN industrial complex over there. Come on. If we follow him we might could crack this whole thing wide open tonight.”

I was about to protest when Lyle suddenly pounded on our door.

Come on, boys!” he sang out. “It’s Bigfoot time!”

What are you talking about?” I asked.

The Bigfoot! Come on! Quick!”

Well, what you do with a crazy person is humor them, and I had two to deal with, so outside we went. The moon on the snow made it nearly bright as day.

What time is it?” I asked.

Feeding time,” Lyle said over his shoulder.

Feeding time?”

The Bigfoot. They come out to feed every night. You’ll finally get to see them.”

Where’s Randolph?” Sam asked.

Oh, he’s up ahead,” Lyle said. “He rousts them out for me.” Sam nudged me so hard I almost fell down. “Shh!” Lyle hissed, and put out an arm to stop us. We stood there, three Popsicles in the snow. And then… there it was.

Have you ever seen that Bigfoot footage they show every once in a while on those documentaries? Bigfoot loping along, kind of looking back over his shoulder? Well, there it was in front of us. Big, hairy thing, taller than Randolph (I knew what Sam was thinking). It wasn’t Randolph. No, this thing was huge, and it was hairy. It stepped out from the shelter belt, kind of gingerly, stepped out. It reached down and picked something up off the ground. Then its head swiveled towards us. I tried to become invisible. Then it leaped back into the shadows of the shelterbelt, and it was gone.

My God,” I gasped.

Amen,” Lyle said.

Where’s Randolph?” Sam asked. Told you I knew what he was thinking.

Right here,” Randolph said behind us, making me nearly jump out of my shoes. “I’m heading back, Lyle.” Lyle nodded, and Randolph trudged off.

Bait, huh?” Sam asked.

Honey on suet,” Lyle said. “They’re a lot like bears.”

Sam started walking over towards the shelterbelt.

Where are you going?” I called out.

I want to see its footprints!” Sam called back.

It’s gonna stink,” Lyle warned, as we followed him. He was right. Kind of a mixture of cat box and skunk and something else, sharp and nasty.

What is that?” I asked, gagging.

Bigfoot,” Lyle said proudly.

Sam was glaring like an angry lighthouse. “There’s something going on over there, and I’m gonna find out what it is.”

It’s just Jeb Olson’s old place,” Lyle said.

Or a UN industrial complex.”

Why don’t we just go back to the house and get some sleep?” I suggested.

Go ahead,” Sam said. “But I’m going over that hill.”

I’m coming, too,” Lyle said. He whispered to me, “I got to make sure he don’t spook them too much.”

So the three of us stepped into the darkness of the trees. A shelterbelt isn’t that wide a place, unless it’s a winter’s night and you’ve already seen a Bigfoot moving through it. We plowed through the deep snow, thick branches, dark shadows, and thickening smell until we reached the small rise before the Olson farm. Sam reached out one hand and waved us behind him. Then he reached deep into his parka and pulled out a handgun. Well, I’d always known Sam was an ex-Marine, and he’d claimed to never go anywhere without a gun. I’d just never taken him seriously. This was going to come back to haunt me the next time we quarreled over euchre at the Norseman’s.

At the top of the rise, Sam laid down in the snow and waved at us to do the same. Down below us was what was left of the Olson farmhouse and outbuildings after the tornado. But there were lights in the farmhouse, cold blue ones, like they were using fluorescents or maybe alien technology.

See?” Sam hissed.

Someone came out of the farmhouse. His back-lit silhouette wasn’t tall and hairy, but neither was it tiny and bulb-headed. The short, stocky man walked across the yard and opened one of the outbuildings. The reek that came out of there nearly knocked us down, as far away as we were. It was sharper than a goose farm on a muggy August day.

Come on,” Sam hissed. For a minute I feared he was calling on us to storm the place like commandos, but he was just sliding back down the hill.

Half an hour later, back at Lyle’s, Sam and Lyle were in the kitchen, sipping whiskey, and I was in the den, listening to Carl snore while I called my sister Matt from my cell phone. She was spending the week in Deadwood, doing everything a sixty-eight year old woman should not be doing, and wasn’t happy about being interrupted. But what Matt doesn’t know about the criminal element isn’t worth knowing. I got her to listen to the story – she laughed her head off at the Bigfoot – and when I was done she said, “Better get Bob Hanson on it right away.” He’s the local sheriff.

So you think –­”

I don’t think it’s aliens or Bigfoot or the UN, no,” Matt said. “Only don’t tell the boys that. It’d break their hearts.”

Great. So what do I tell them?”

How about not telling them a damn thing? I’m fixing to win a jackpot here, Harold. Later.”

She hung up, and I went back in the kitchen.

Have some coffee,” Lyle said.

No, thanks,” I replied. “I’d like to try to get some sleep.”
Sam and I went back out to Lyle’s the next night, the night after, and the night after that. We hiked out in the snow, through the shelterbelt, up the hill, and laid out at the top of the rise and saw nothing but the blue lights. One night two people came out of the farmhouse. One night none. The third night, three. No Bigfoot any night.

The fourth night was wicked cold. The air was so clear that you could see every star. No wind, thank God. It was so quiet I could hear Sam’s wheezing and Lyle’s creaking joints. And then they came. Out of the sky. A sound like giant beaters, everywhere. Lights that came out of nowhere. A fierce wind, nearly knocking me down. Something huge and black swooshed over us and I hit the snow. Sam did the same, but he rolled as he hit, pulling out his gun and getting it up and ready. More huge black things went over, and then they were gone, over us, over the shelterbelt and the rise and towards the Olson place.

Black helicopters,” Sam said grimly, as he came back up on his feet. “I told you the government was in on this. Come on, Harold. I wouldn’t miss this for all the gold in Fort Knox.”

Everything had exploded at the Olson place: dozens of people were running around. Half of them were all in black with big black guns, rounding up the other half. Between stench and smoke, my eyes were stinging so bad I didn’t know for sure what I was seeing. The noise was something else, too.

When the smoke cleared – and I’m not kidding about that – the men in black were tossing the rest into black vans that took off in a wave of snow. The helicopters were looming. Up on a little knoll, standing with a couple of the men in black, was Louise Sanborn.

What the heck is she doing here?” Sam hissed.

Well,” I said, “She is a cop.”

Everything secure?” Louise yelled at a man in black.

Yeah!” he yelled back. “Clean up crews will come tomorrow! What was the tip-off?”

Farmer up the road noticed the smell!”

Five minutes later, everyone was gone, including Louise, leaving Lyle, Sam and me in sudden, dark, reeking silence. I creaked my way from crouching to standing when Randolph’s voice came out from behind some brush.

Wow. What a show!” Randolph walked over to us. “Can you believe it? They even brought helicopters! Man, I’d never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.”

Sam grunted. “Let’s get out of here before these fumes kill us.”
We plowed our way back up the hill, where we stopped and took big, deep breaths of fresh, cold air.

Now you tell me the truth, Randolph,” Sam pleaded. “Those were UN forces in those black helicopters, weren’t they?”

FBI,” Randolph said.


FBI,” Randolph repeated. “That’s what Louise told me. Or was it CBI? One of those.”

What the hell is the FBI doing way out here?” Sam asked.

Drug bust. That was the biggest meth lab in South Dakota. Ever.” Randolph looked coaxingly at us, while Sam’s face stayed blank. “Meth. Speed. Methamphetamine. Even you guys have got to have heard of them. It was a lab. A meth lab!”

So, you a cop, too?” Sam asked.

God, no,” Randolph protested. “Nobody’d want me in law enforcement.”

So it wasn’t a chemical weapons plant?”


And they weren’t rounding up people to take them to one of those UN concentration camps?”

Sam, where do you read this stuff, anyway?” Randolph asked.

It’s all over the place,” Sam snapped. “Everybody knows about it.”

No, it wasn’t the UN. It was a drug bust.”

Sam marched off, cussing a blue streak. Beside me, Lyle was crying.
That drug bust was the biggest thing to hit our area in years. People are still talking about it. Sam still doesn’t buy it. He says the whole drug thing was nothing but a cover story the government put out to hide what was really going on. It didn’t help that Randolph drifted off a couple of days later, to parts unknown. Sam said that was proof Randolph was part of it. You can’t change Sam’s mind.

Lyle was heartbroken. He’d welcomed those Bigfoot. He lived for UFOs. To find out it was just a bunch of drug dealers put him in a tailspin. Surprisingly, it was Sam who finally cheered him up.

You know, Lyle,” Sam said over euchre one night, “I been thinking. I’ll bet aliens really were raising Bigfoot out there, but then the drug dealers showed up and the Bigfoot got spooked.”

Lyle looked up from his cards. “So?”

So, the aliens decided that the drug lab had to be shut down. They’re good aliens, right?”

Lyle sat up straight. “Oh, yeah. You betcha.”

So they got a hold of the FBI and turned in the drug lab –”

How’d they do that?” Carl asked maliciously.

They can tap into any telephones they want,” I offered.

That’s right!” Lyle eagerly agreed. “They can. They just don’t interfere with us, because that would violate the Prime Directive.”

But this time they had to interfere,” Sam explained, “because the drug lab was bothering their Bigfoot. So the aliens called the FBI, and then they herded up all their Bigfoot and hid them to keep them safe.”

You think they’ll come back?” Lyle pleaded.

Bound to,” Sam assured him.

That’s great.” Lyle beamed as he got up and paid his bill. “I’m going home right now and put out some suet for them, you betcha. Let them know I’m still here, still waiting. I just wish Randolph was here. This’d make his day!”

There was a moment’s silence after Lyle left.

That was a kind thing you did,” I said to Sam.

I’m just glad he bought it.”

Of course he did,” Carl growled. “Now deal.”