Tuesday, November 5, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Hardwick. Luther Hardwick.”

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

“You took over his business?”

“Yes,” she said. “I did.”

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

“A receipt for what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Columbini?”

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

“I haven’t seen you since—”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why’s that?”

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

“Sure,” Zipper said. “I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What can I do for you, Mr. LeCroix?”

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

“My account?”

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

“And why is that?”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

She introduced herself. “Zipper Hardwick.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need to tell me about my uncle.”

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

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

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

Zipper shook her head.

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

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

“You know how your uncle got that limp?”


“He was shot robbing a bank.”

“Uncle Luther?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Not really.”

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

“Deaf as a doorknob.”

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

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

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

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

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

“My uncle was a crook?”

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

“Except money laundering.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You Hardwick?” asked the bigger one.

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

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

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


“We come to collect.”

“And if I don’t pay you?”

“You don’t want to know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want a beer?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

“But you did.”

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

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

“How much do you have left?”

“Ninety-six and change.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I came up here for the money.”

“And if you don’t get it?”

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

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

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

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

“Let him take it,” Lefty said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the key?”

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

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

“And yet, here you are.”

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

Without realizing it, Zipper glanced down the hallway.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“I can’t leave you—”

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

They heard footsteps on the back stairs.


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

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

Saturday, November 2, 2019

S.A. Cosby Wins Anthony Award for Best Short Story

Late breaking news from Dallas confirms that S.A. Cosby took out a talented field of nominees in winning the Anthony award for best short story for "The Grass Beneath My Feet" published here on August 20th of last year. Please join us in a hearty "Hell Yeah" for Shawn and while you're waiting for what will no doubt be his breakout novel Blacktop Wasteland later on this year, you can read reviews of My Darkest Prayer here and here and here, or purchase the thing for yourself here. Needless to say, we're fans here at Tough, and wish Shawn the best as he takes over the crime fiction field in the coming years.

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Covenant, fiction by LIbby Cudmore

Excerpt From The Book of Common Practice, Chapter 13: The eve before the wedding, the bridegroom’s brother must unbury the caskets of no fewer than five relations and place them outside the church. The back pew must be left empty, with a bouquet of magnolias tied to the ends so that the wandering souls may find their way to the ceremony.

At the conclusion of the marriage ceremony, one casket is buried in front of the new homestead, while the others are returned to the ground. In place of the departed casket, the lilies are buried beneath the headstone.

“Isn’t it romantic?” Amy gushed, turning her tablet and pointing to a stock photo of bride and groom skeletons that Buzzfeed had helpfully placed under the heading “Weird Wedding Traditions.” “In Covenant, Kentucky, they unbury their dead,” she read aloud. “This way, the dearly departed can enjoy the ceremony, and one casket is buried in the yard of the couple’s new home to protect them from thieves and misfortune.”

“That’s just fine,” said Cyrus. “Except last I checked, we were in Covenant, Florida, where people leave the dead buried in their graves.”

It had not been Cyrus’ idea to return to his hometown for their wedding. His fiancĂ©e, Amy had insisted, bolstered by glossy brochures of sunny soft-focus weddings, too worried that her Perfect Day might be ruined by a traffic jam or a hurricane. He tried to explain that they had traffic and hurricanes here too, but she didn’t buy it. Born and raised in Miami, she saw Covenant as a charming, panhandle town where everything was cute and perfect and precise, a 1950s vision of American Life, preserved like peach slices in glass jars. But it had changed. Cyrus barely recognized the home of his childhood. What were once empty fields were now strip malls and retirement communities, old single-pump gas stations razed and turned into scarf boutiques and Korean nail salons. They didn’t need to dig up any bodies. There were still plenty of ghosts who trod the soil of Covenant. There were still plenty of secrets buried, never to be unearthed.

“Oh, come on,” Amy said. “Any basic bitch can have mason jars and chalkboards at her wedding, but if we put caskets outside the church, we’d make the front page of Offbeat Bride in a heartbeat. Hell, we might make HuffPo Weddings. We would be a viral sensation. Trend-setters.”

“I don’t want to be a trend-setter,” he said. “And I have no need to make the front page of Offbeat Bride.” He leaned in and kissed her forehead. “All I want is to be married to you, darlin’.”

She saw right through his ruse. She slapped him playfully on the arm. “You never let me have any fun,” she said.


Cyrus didn’t know if it was nerves or a hangover, but he felt like one lone black fly was buzzing around in his empty skull. The sticky scent of magnolias was turning his stomach enough, but underneath them, he swore he smelled dread and decay. He knew he shouldn’t have had that last round, not the one at the Lucky Horse Saloon with his cousin Kyle and Amy’s dumbshit brother Tyler, but the late-night raid on the minibar to calm his nerves when the other drinks kept him jittery and awake. He pinched his temples and hoped he made it through the ceremony without throwing up.

Kyle and Tyler were still a little drunk, chortling behind their hands as they waited on the dais for the processional to begin. And when the music started–a three piece quartet’s rendition of Shania Twain’s “From This Moment On”–Amy drifted up the aisle on a cloud of lace and tulle. He didn’t even mind that she was wearing glittery cowboy boots under her dress. She was more beautiful than he’d ever imagined any woman would be, and it wasn’t the whiskey that brought tears to his eyes. All her petty annoyances went away in the moment she got up to the altar and placed her manicured hands in his.

But when Kyle passed him Amy’s ring, Cyrus noticed dirt under his fingernails. He didn’t give it much thought until he noticed that Tyler had dirt on his hands too. And then all he could stare at was the empty back pew of the church.


“It was supposed to be a joke!” Amy said.

“A joke?” Cyrus yelled back. “Amy, that is a real casket with a real body buried on our front lawn! Do you have any idea how many kinds of illegal that is?”

They had gotten home late Sunday night and Cyrus had all but fallen asleep in his clothes. They had both taken Monday off to recover from the weekend, but he had still woken up early, his mouth dry. Staring out the kitchen window while the coffee brewed, he had noticed a swatch of freshly-dug ground. And when he’d gone out to investigate, he kicked aside the dirt to find an old oak casket buried just a few feet down.

“We don’t know that it wasn’t here when we bought the place,” she said. “Maybe we just didn’t notice it until now.”

“It’s a freshly-dug grave!” he said, his voice rising in pitch. “I can guarantee you they left that out the sale listings!”

Amy's eyes started to fill with tears, but he wasn't in the mood for any of it. "Call Tyler," he said. "Borrow his truck. If we leave now, we can get back to Covenant late this afternoon and get this taken care of."

She went back inside, but he could still hear her yelling at Tyler. He went back to the grave, still uncovered from the dirt he dug up. There was a small brass plaque, tarnished with dirt and age. He pulled his jacket cuff over his hand and rubbed one clean enough to see the inscription.

Oh shit.


“Orthwina was the matriarch of the Beckerman family,” Cyrus explained. “During the Civil War, the Beckerman whores would sleep with sleep with soldiers from both sides, sometimes on the same night, and sell the secrets to the highest bidder. They were bootleggers in the 20s, union goons up through the 50s, ran dope through the 80s and last I knew, meth. Orthwina’s been gone for awhile and when she died, the whole town turned out for her funeral. I remember my father taking me, but when the little Korean ladies at Nail Palace didn’t attend—they didn’t know—the next day, their windows were shot up. The Beckermans do not screw around.”

Rike and Sawyer Beckerman, Orthwina’s grandsons, had been classmates of his. He wasn’t surprised they were running meth. They were a couple of ugly kids, thieves of Ninja Turtles and baseball cards, but no one ever dared to try and take them back. Orthwina had rules, she had honor even in her brutality, but her son, Weston Beckerman, did not, and he had no intention of passing that on to his boys. Cyrus always had a secret crush on their sister, Malloy, a year ahead in school, beautiful and unfalteringly kind, seemingly removed from all of it like a cool breeze on a hot day. He wondered if she was still in Covenant, if she fell into her family’s trap or if she got away clean.

Amy looked like she was about to throw up. Tyler just scoffed. “So we just re-bury the casket,” he said. “No big deal. I doubt they’ll even notice it missing. It was in, like, in the woods at the back of the cemetery.”

“That’s the family plot, idiot,” Cyrus said. “They’ll notice that their grandmother has been exhumed.”

“Can’t we just explain that we thought we were following a tradition?” Amy said.

He wanted to yell at her. He knew he couldn’t. “I highly doubt they’ll be swayed by a tradition you read about on a website where you can take a quiz about what sort of cheese awakened you sexually,” he said through gritted teeth. “And even if it was a real thing, which I doubt, you’re supposed to take from your side of the family, not someone else’s relatives.”

“So what do we do?” Amy bleated.

He sighed. “We don’t have a choice,” he said. “We’ll have to rebury them, and hope the boys have fallen short in their visitation.”


Amy stayed behind. Cyrus fought the feeling that he might never see her again. The ride back to Covenant was quiet; every speed trap felt like it was laid just for him. Even the toll operators seemed sinister. For the first few hours, Tyler tried to make conversation. Cyrus wasn’t having any of it. He wished Kyle was here, at least. Then he might feel like he had someone on his side.

It was nearing dark when they arrived. Tyler offered to let Cyrus stay in his place, but he declined. He’d rather sleep in the Dumpster behind the needle exchange than at whatever solo frat house Tyler currently kept. He’d spent enough nights sleeping on Tyler’s couch in his 20s, when he was new in town, before Tyler introduced him to Amy.

“How long are you going to be pissed at me about this?” Tyler said as he pulled up in front of the Embassy hotel. “It was a stupid prank, man. You didn’t used to be this uptight.”

He grabbed his bag out of the back of the cab. “I’ll stop being pissed when we both come out of this alive,” he said. “Pick me up at midnight; we’ll see if we can’t get it in then.”


Midnight seemed like it might have been days from now. Cyrus took a shower, he watched some TV, he called Amy to tell her they had a plan. And finally, when he ran out of options, he went down to the hotel bar. Maybe a $10 well whiskey would calm his nerves.

The bar was filled with businessmen, near-identical in their cheap suits, drinking hard on company cards. There was a bartender who wore the smile of the chronically under-tipped, a couple of young women who kept leaning their tits on the bar when they were sure the men were looking, and, in the corner, one woman, all in black, drinking bourbon with a bored expression.

Malloy Beckerman.

He turned to take his drink upstairs, but she spotted him and gestured him over with one perfectly manicured red finger. “I know you,” she said. “We went to school together. I’m sure of it.”

“Cyrus,” he said. “Cyrus Greene.”

She smiled. “Of course,” she said. “We were in choir. I always thought you were cute. What are you doing here?”

He knew he should have made an excuse to leave. He knew he should have told her he was someone else, pretended not to remember her. But in his gut he was still 17, and to be invited to sit anywhere near Malloy Beckerman was a dream come true. “Just back for a visit,” he said, settling into the chair across from her. “You?”

“Getting a drink after work,” she said. “Same as these clowns.”

“You work with some of them?”

“God, no,” she said. She gestured to the blonde in the red satin tube dress, trying to dance to the thin tunes coming over the bar’s sound system. “I’ve seen her a couple times. Talks too loud, carries three different phones. I always assumed she worked outcall. Must be a big trade show in town.”

“What are you, a madam?” he joked.

She actually laughed. “A hairdresser, actually.” she said. “What about you? Heard you just got married.”

That took him by surprise. How did she know? She must have seen the shock splattered across his face because she pointed at his left hand. “Your ring, dummy,” she teased. “And I saw the announcement in the paper. You should have called. I would have done up your bride’s hair.”

He laughed to cover the painful exhale of a breath held too tight in his chest. “Right,” he said, twisting the ring. “Guess I’m still getting used to it. You?”

“Divorced,” she said. “Two years now. He said we were ‘incompatible,’ but I don’t need to visit a strip-mall psychic to know what that means.”

“Divorced?” He couldn’t imagine anyone cheating on Malloy. She was somehow even more beautiful at 35 than she had been at 17, her dark hair worn in loose waves, her mouth heart-shaped and velvety with a dark red lipstick, curvy and leggy in a black dress that fit her like it was made of cling wrap. He killed the rest of his drink like he was trying to drench a fire, but before he could stop himself, he sputtered, “How? How could anyone leave you?”

She blushed. “You’re sweet,” she said. “No, I don’t blame him. Rike and Sawyer drove him off. I’m sure that comes as no surprise to you.”

“Not one bit,” he said.

“Yeah, well they’ve only gotten worse,” she said. “Dad died a few years ago and they took the family business in, shall we say, a different direction.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh Cyrus,” she chided. “Don’t play coy. We’re both adults. You know what my family does.”

He wished he had another drink. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I do.”

She finished her own and pushed the glass aside. He noticed that she had little crystal gemstones on the nail of her index finger. “That’s not even the worst part,” she said. “The worst part is that with Dad gone, other organizations are trying to make a play. They see Rike and Swayer as weak, which they are, so we’re constantly on the brink of war. Last year we really had it out with the Hosten family out of Atlanta. I ended up brokering the truce, but not before there were a couple bodies dropped. I’ll spare you the details.”

He tried to pretend it was the whiskey that slapped him hard across the face, the dizzying rush of blood to his cheeks. “That’s…that’s awful,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah, well, it’s about to get a lot worse,” she said. “The Lyle organization just sent us a pretty hard-line message. They’ve been trying to get at our family for years, and now they might have the means. Rike and Sawyer are already prepping for war.”

Cyrus motioned to the bartender for two more drinks. His hands were shaking as he seized his; he inhaled half of it before he spoke. “What was the message?” he asked.

“They dug up my grandmother’s casket.”


Tyler’s apartment was a lot neater than Cyrus expected it to be. He imagined Amy’s mother coming over weekly to pick up after her baby; they had caught her in the kitchen at the wedding, pestering the catering staff to “just let her help tidy up.” Tyler had to come get him from the hotel after he said goodbye to Malloy; he was too anxious to drive over there. He blurted everything on the ride over.

“We’re dead,” he repeated for what felt like the tenth time. “We are so dead.”

“Maybe we can talk to Malloy,” said Tyler. “She seems like she hates her brothers, maybe she can help us.”

“Are you insane?” Cyrus said. “We can’t tell a soul. If this gets out, we’ll be killed, either by the Lyle family, who try to take the body from us, or by the Beckermans themselves.”

Tyler didn’t respond for a few minutes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry I got us into this.”

Then suddenly, Cyrus knew what to do. “We’ll have to burn her,” he said. “If they think the Lyles are involved, they’ll keep fighting them until one side gives up. But we can’t risk getting caught with her body. It’s the only way.”

Tyler didn’t seem fazed by his suggestion, like Cyrus had suggested they go bowling instead of playing mini-golf. “My family’s got a cabin,” he said. “We can take it there.”


Cyrus drank in the car. He had to. He needed to be good and drunk before he opened that casket and took out Orthwina’s body to burn in fire pit at Tyler’s cabin. Tyler, somehow the more sober of the two of them, would be tasked with chopping up the casket. They would burn that separately. No sense in drawing too much attention with a bonfire made of death and varnish.

A fifth of cheap bourbon polished off, he started building a fire. The body, now wrapped in a sheet, was less than five feet away from him. On the other side of the house, he heard Tyler swinging the ax. He took a deep breath and apologized to Orthwina. He remembered how she gave out full-sized Butterfingers for Halloween, the trays of homemade cookies she brought to church pageants, how she always smelled like lavender. He lifted her onto the makeshift pyre and lit a match.

The stench of the fire nearly brought the whiskey back up. Chemicals and human decay; he staggered out of the direction of the wind and slumped against a tree, trying to stop his guts and the sky from spinning. This is love, he thought. No one will ever love a woman more than I do, right now, in this goddamn moment. And he laughed. He laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks. But he didn’t picture Amy; he imagined Malloy, her body tight against him, her mouth just brushing his as she whispered thank you.

A hand on his shoulder. No, not Malloy. Tyler. “You lightweight,” he said. “Fire’s almost burnt out. Want me to put in the rest?”

He had fallen asleep. The sun was starting to rise. “Yeah,” he said, weaving to his feet. “Yeah, put it on.”

They watched the fire until it was ashes. They poured water over everything, took the brass plaque with her name. Tyler promised he’d bury it somewhere else, somewhere they had no connection to. The war between the Beckermans and the Lyles and whoever else came for them would go on. He just wouldn’t be a part of it.


Even as an adult, the dread of being called down to the principal’s office never went away. Cyrus was just welcoming his kids back from lunch when Louise called him from the classroom phone. “Your wife called,” she said before he could even sit in the chair she offered. “Her brother was found dead this morning.”

“Tyler?” he breathed.

Louise nodded. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’ve already called a substitute to take over your class for the day, if you need to go home….”

He didn’t remember leaving the school. He didn’t remember driving home. He didn’t remember what Amy said when she fell into his arms, wailing. He didn’t come back to his senses until he saw a message on his phone, from Malloy.

We need to talk.


“Please explain to me,” Malloy said as the waiter set down two tumblers of bourbon in front of them. The Embassy hotel bar was empty at this hour, waiting for the businessmen and the tourists and the hookers to fill it again. “Why the nameplate of my grandmother’s casket was found in your brother-in-law’s possession.”

Cyrus took a slow breath, a swallow of bourbon and counted to ten before he answered. “I have no idea,” he lied. “How did you come to find that he had it?”

“He offered to sell it back,” she said. “Told Rike that he had acquired it from the Lyles in exchange for some favors—he didn’t specify what—and would sell it back to us for a million dollars. When he went to the meetup, they killed him.”


“Do you really want to know that?” He didn’t, but he felt he owed it to Tyler to hear the gruesome details. He nodded, weakly, and braced himself with bourbon.

“They burned him,” she said. “Alive. They doused the fire in time for him to suffer. He was in the hospital for six hours, all of it painful, before they called his mother to take him off the ventilator.”

“What are the cops going to do?” he asked.

“Same as what they did when they found the Lyles’ two men with a bullet in his gut,” she said. “And the same as they did when they found Trey Lyle in the river. Nothing. The cops aren’t going to get involved in a mob war. Too many of them are on the take from either side.”

“Why are you telling me this?” he asked.

“Because you’re a good man,” she said. “Tyler’s an idiot. He got himself into trouble he didn’t understand. But you don’t deserve that blowback.”

No, he wasn’t, he the thought. It had been his suggestion to burn the body. He could have called the police. Could have made a different choice, could have come clean now. But he didn’t. And now the bill was coming due in overdraft.

She finally picked up her drink. “Your wife is lucky,” she said. “I’m sorry about her brother, but she’s got a man like you to protect her. I just wonder when they’re going to come for me, make me choose a side. And I don’t have a good man to protect me.”


Malloy told him where Rike and Sawyer would be. They plotted it carefully in his hotel room, and he fought off every urge to kiss her. She gave him a baseball bat for the first strike and a pistol to finish them off with. She would meet him with the car; they would dump the bodies in the quarry. She would negotiate peace with the Lyle family. “They can have it,” she said. “All of it. I just want out.”

He pulled into the parking lot of The Barrel Inn. He remembered drinking here with Tyler, before he introduced him to Amy. Now Tyler was dead, and his poor bride’s heart was broken. It seemed only right that it all ended here. Tonight.

He went inside and ordered a beer. He drank in the back corner, watching them play pool. He left before they did, got the bat out of the backseat and waited. He thought about baseball games in gym class. Rike had punched him once, out on the field, because he had caught a pop fly, and for the rest of the week he spent every waking moment anxious that Sawyer would finish the job. These two deserved what was coming to them. Not just for Tyler. Not just for Malloy.

He didn’t feel anything when he swung the bat into Rike’s head. Even less when he smashed Sawyer’s shoulders. He taped their hands, their feet, their mouths. He loaded them into the truck bed like a fresh kill. He drove out the quarry and cut the bindings. They were still unconscious when he rolled them into the quarry, breaking the majestic moonlight scene on the perfectly still water. They might find them, bloated and black, in a few days. Or maybe they wouldn’t. Rike and Sawyer Beckerman weren’t the first two bodies to vanish in the deep.


Malloy didn’t show at the hotel the next morning. She didn’t answer her phone either. His heart was in his throat. Had the Lyle family taken her when she called to negotiate that truce? Would the cops find her body, battered and used, on the floor of some cheap hotel room, an empty apartment, a cum-stained mattress in the back of the woods?

She finally called him at noon, just as he was getting ready to head back to Miami. She invited him to her home and poured him a drink even though he told her he wasn’t thirsty. “I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me,” she said.

“I didn’t want them to hurt you,” he replied. “I hope you’re safe now.” “Very,” she said, taking a sip of her own. “I’ve decided to take my family’s business in yet another new direction. Or rather, an old direction. Return to our roots, as it were.”

Now he wanted that drink. “I thought you said you wanted out.”

“Out of my life, certainly,” she said. “I was tired of being a hairdresser. Rike and Sawyer stood in the way of that. I’ve sold the meth portion of the organization to the Lyle family. I thought I’d bring back my family’s brothels. Those Korean girls do great nails and, from what I’m told, give great head.”

He looked at her manicure, wrapped around her heavy crystal tumbler. It was dark red this time, with black tips. Like a dragon. Like a serpent. Like he imagined Eve would have if they had manicurists in Paradise. “You…” he breathed. “You used me.”

She shrugged. “I’m not the one who burned my grandmother’s corpse,” she said. “And I am sorry about Tyler, that really was all Rike and Sawyer. I hope you understand that.”

He wasn’t really even listening, but she continued. “We’re a good team,” she said, reaching out and putting her hand on his. He was too numb to even recoil. “I didn’t use you so much as I auditioned you,” she said. “You’re a natural.”

“I can’t,” he said. “I’ve got a wife, I’ve got students back home, I don’t have the stomach for this…”

“Sure you do,” she said. “You beat two men unconscious and left them to drown. You burned a woman’s body. You’ve got more fortitude than most men.”

Now he wanted that drink more than ever. “And if I say no?” he said. “You gonna kill me? Silence me so I won’t go to the cops?”

“You won’t say a word,” she said. “You never do. You didn’t own up to having Orthwina’s body after your boys pulled a stupid, drunken prank. Didn’t come clean about burning her either. You spun me a story about Tyler making a deal and then you killed two more people to keep that secret. No, Cyrus, I trust you. More than I’ve ever trusted anyone, really. I don’t have to silence you. Your own guilt will do that. And if I’m wrong, well, I’m sure Marcus Lyle will be happy to help me out. I took care of my brothers, after all. An apology for the killing of his man. A blood sacrifice of old.”

She was right. Goddamn it, she was right, and she’d known it from the moment she set foot in the Embassy Bar. “The answer is still no,” he said.

He waited for her to pull out a revolver, to admit that there was poison in his glass, to ring a bell for a man who would come in and snap his neck. But she did none of those things. Instead, she stood, and he stood, and she kissed him on the cheek. “If that’s how you want it,” she said. “The offer will always stand. Give my love to your wife.”

He drove back to Miami. Amy was waiting for up for him when he arrived. “Anything?” she whispered. “Anything about Tyler?”

He held her, savoring the scent of her hair, wishing he could absorb her warmth into the permanent ice block in the middle of his chest. For a moment, he considered coming clean. Unburdening his soul, taking his chance that someone might hear him, believe him, take pity on him for trying to be a good man. But Malloy was right. He wasn’t a good man, in his heart. He was a quiet man. A coward.

“Nothing,” he finally said. “The cops say his case has gone cold.”

Libby Cudmore is the author of the critically acclaimed hipster mystery THE BIG REWIND (William Morrow, Feb 2016) which received a starred review from Kirkus, as well as praise from Publisher's Weekly and Booklist. Her short fiction has been published in The Big Click, the Stoneslide Corrective, PANK, Vinyl Me Please, The Writer and the anthologies HANZAI JAPAN, WELCOME HOME and MIXED UP, as well as the forthcoming anthology BUT THE HANGMAN ISN'T HANGIN': FICTION INSPIRED BY THE MUSIC OF STEELY DAN.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Bar Bet, fiction by JM Taylor

That early in the day, not many drinkers slunk into the dark of the Drinking Hole. In the far corner, cheap-ass Larry Stover nursed his beer so fiercely it was more likely to evaporate than get drunk. At the far end of the bar, Ced surrounded his beer like a fortress. Brown as the walnut bar top, he had a brilliant white scar splashed across his face like he was the missing member of KISS. Molly Finnegan leaned spread-legged with her elbows on the bar, so she’d be the first thing anyone saw coming in. Not that the pose enticed any paying customers for her or for me. It wasn’t worth my while to fill the peanut bowls yet.

I dropped a cricket from the jar into the terrarium and turned to slicing limes, not that many of my patrons got so fancy. I stopped buying maraschino cherries a decade ago.

By lunch time, the place had started to fill up. The only food I sold was bags of chips and pickled eggs, but it wasn’t the cuisine folks came in for. With a television that showed only sports with no audio and a juke last updated when John and June visited Folsom, the Hole is a place for quiet contemplation. Couple years ago, I had to put up a sign in the window, saying “no colors.” At first, it was for the different bikers who come in. Club members got too loud for the rest of the drinkers to stew in peace. But really it turned out to be the young punks in town, the ones who buy into that crap on cable and on-line “news” who think “free speech” means you can say what you want without repercussion.

After the second one got bounced off the floor, I put that sign up. But no sign is going to stop a rising tide. Try it yourself.

So the place was getting busy, but Molly had left for greener pastures and no one noticed when the door opened, shining a spotlight on nothing in particular. I looked up and saw two kids come in. With the light behind them, all I saw was the high and tight hair cuts and squared shoulders like they owned the place. When the door closed behind them, the darkness revealed that one had dark hair and a face covered with acne he should have grown out of five years ago. The other, slightly taller, wore a smirk that begged you to punch it. They both wore white shirts with some triangle logo I’d never seen. But after carding them, I had no real reason to deny them the cheap beers they ordered. But I never lost track of them.

Ced lifted his finger at the same time the kids called for another round. Some say you should prioritize the new faces, try to build your customer base, but I believe in loyalty first. Ced, Larry, even Molly the whore, would always get served before a line of newcomers. I walked past them to deliver Ced’s beer. I should’ve known something would come of it, and maybe I did.

The pimply one spoke up first. He was almost polite, just saying, “Hey, we were first!”

I ignored him. The complaint made me want to ask Ced how his day was. “Not as bad as yesterday,” he said. “Probably better than tomorrow, though.”

Then the other got more forceful. “I thought your sign said no coloreds.”

I locked eyes with Ced, but he didn’t give me any other indication of how he felt about that. I gritted my teeth, took the three steps to their spot deliberately. Along the way, I decided not to discuss spelling with them.

“You’re cut off,” I said. “First round’s on me, so hoof it.”

It’s never that easy to scrape shit from your shoe, though.

“I get it’s not the fifties anymore, we can’t have segregated counters no more, but damned if I’m going to let you serve him before me. I’m an American, for God’s sake.”

“And he’s a veteran, for country’s sake. I don’t deal with your bullshit in my bar. Beat it, fashy.”

I glanced at Ced, who hadn’t moved, except to sip his beer. But he had the beginnings of his own smirk, and I wondered why. The rest of the place was watching me, and I didn’t like it.

Pock-face said, “I just want to know why you think that one’s better than me. I love my country, that’s why we need to keep the undesirables out. We built this country, we fought and died for it, and we don’t need outsiders and illegals sucking off America’s tit.”

“That’s a sick image,” Ced mumbled. I felt the weight of everyone’s eyes shift off me onto him, like at a tennis match. Still, he didn’t move, his elbows gripped by the varnish of the wood.

The boys pushed away from the bar and sauntered over to Ced, one at each shoulder. If he was worried about a two-on-one match, he didn’t show it.

“We didn’t ask for your literary analysis,” the tall one said. “Like he said, we want to know why you think you’re better than us.”

“You serve? All that building and fighting and dying? What branch?”

The pimply one balled his fists. “I’ll show—”

But his friend cut him off. It was only from this angle that he saw Ced’s scars. “What’d you do? Try to bleach yourself like Michael Jackson?”

The two of them laughed like a pair of rabid hyenas, but the air went out the room. I said my customers like quiet contemplation, but I didn’t say they don’t know and respect each other.

“IED,” Ced told him. “Fallujah. Bet you can’t even spell it.” Then he looked at me and grinned. “I can see that you won’t back off, and I don’t want to fight, so maybe we should leave this to Oliver!.”

“Who’s Oliver?” the tall one said.

“No, it’s ‘Oliver!’,” I said. “With the exclamation point.” I showed him the terrarium. The heat lamp burned beneath the liquor bottles, giving them a hellish glow.

“Why’s he called that?” zit-face asked. As if he knew who “he” was.

I checked with Ced, to make sure he was serious. Ced nodded, so I shrugged, unclipped the lamp and moved the glass case to the bar. Except for the sand-colored rocks, a bowl of water, and the grinning human skull, it looked empty. The glass was warm in my hands.

The two punks leaned in close, and a few others looked over their shoulders, but Oliver! was nowhere to be seen. I knew he was hiding in the skull, working on the cricket I’d given him for lunch. I unlocked the lid and folded it back. Then I lifted the skull.

Oliver!’s tail curled up over his head. “Lookit this,” I said, and reached under the bar for the blacklight I kept for checking IDs. I shined it on Oliver! and he changed from black to blue. He held the cricket in his pincers the way Larry held his evaporating beer.

“What the fuck is that?” the tall one said.

“That is Androctonus bicolor,” I said, putting the black light away. “Fat-tailed scorpion. Also known as Oliver!. You want to get technical, he’s an illegal, smuggled over in Ced’s gear. As his name implies, a mixture of colors. He also has a hell of a sting.”

The two boys stepped back. “You’re out of your mind,” the tall one breathed.

“Watch,” Ced told them. He pushed away his beer and reached his right hand into the tank. He hovered over Oliver!, then, in one quick movement nabbed him by the end of his tail. The cricket dropped to the gravel and he arched and snapped in anger.

The circle around Ced and Oliver grew by three feet.

Oliver! writhed beneath Ced’s hand. The arachnid wasn’t pleased at all, and reached in vain towards the fingers that imprisoned him from above.

“What were you saying about who’s better? Ced asked, smooth as silk. “Let’s make a bet. We’ll let Oliver! vent his anger on each of us. Whoever gives up first has to admit the other is the best.”

The smirk came back to the face of the one with the triangle logo. “If that…” I glared at him. “One can take it, so can I.”

“Fuck no,” said pimple boy. “That’ll kill us.”

I shook my head. “Oliver! don’t kill, at least not if you’re as healthy as you look.” I put a rubber-topped glass vial on the bar. “And this is antivenin if either of you passes out. It’ll keep your heart pumping, more or less. This is my place, so I make the rules: if you win, I’ll declare you’re the master race and banish Ced from my establishment. If he wins, you hand over that piece of shit shirt you’re wearing so I can wipe the john with it.”

“Not me,” the first one said.

“No one’s getting this shirt,” smirky said. But he took a seat next to Ced. I gotta give it to him, even as Oliver! dangled near his face, he held his ground.

Ced was whispering something to the scorpion, like he was putting some kind of spell on him. I thought of snake charmers and horse whisperers. He locked eyes with his opponent. Then, without breaking the stare, he tucked Oliver!’s pincers beneath his left hand, held them there tight, and let his tail go. Oliver! nailed him on the thumb.

Ced blinked, as if he’d gotten a mild shock. “Your turn,” he said.

He daintily nabbed the scorpion’s tail and held it out for the other to take. The son of a bitch had turned whiter than even he might have wanted the country to be, and sweat covered his forehead.

“Go ahead,” Ced urged him, with the same conjuring tone he’d used on Oliver!. “He can’t hurt you if you hold him by the tail.”

“Don’t do it, Mitch. Let’s just leave.”

But that seemed only to egg him on. “Lemme have that,” he said. To be honest, he seemed more worried about touching Ced than he did the scorpion.

Once he had the tail, he put the body under his hand, just like Ced had done.

“Don’t hurt him,” I said.

He glowered at me. “Shut up. I won’t kill your pet.”

I shook my head and stepped back. “I was talking to Oliver!”

He held that pose another few seconds. Deciding, I guess, whether he was really going to go through with it. Finally, he let loose.

It looked like he’d been shocked with a live wire. His whole body went rigid and I swear he levitated off the stool. Ced’s hand flashed out and caught Oliver! before he could scuttle away. Mitch’s red-faced friend was crying, the twerp. Within seconds, a bruise the size and color of a football had spread across Mitch’s wrist and arm. Snot poured out of his nose.

“That’s round one,” I said.

“How many rounds?” the friend gasped.

“Until one of them gives in,” I said.

Ced mumbled another spell.

“What’s he shaying?” Mitch said with a husky voice.

“‘Please sir, I want some more,’” Ced told him more loudly. Then he lodged Oliver! under his right hand, took another stab. This time, his nose twitched, but nothing else. Gingerly, he took Oliver by the tail and offered him to Mitch.

He didn’t look too good. The tendons stood out on his neck, and drool streamed out of the corners of his mouth. “I get ish,” he said. “You got shtung so often you’re immune.”

Ced nodded. “Something like that. Let’s see what you got, white boy.”

It took Mitch two or three tries to take Oliver! by the tail, and he grimaced as he put the pincers beneath his swollen hand. But he didn’t hesitate and this time kept his seat, though he howled loud and long enough to drown out half of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” I did the honors and caught up Oliver! once he’d done his thing.

“Another round?” I asked, as if I were offering beer.

“Hit me,” Ced told me, and he let Oliver! zap him.

Mitch was slumped in his chair. I think his partner was keeping him from hitting the floor. But he managed to say, “Pleashe zhur,” with something approaching humor. But it was the humor of the defeated. He swiped at Oliver! twice, three times, then collapsed on the bar.

Ced dropped Oliver! back in his terrarium. The scorpion darted back under the skull to eat his cricket in peace. I replaced the tank on its shelf and reattached the heat lamp.

By the time I turned around, Mitch was half awake again, scrabbling at his shirt. He was honest enough about that. But he needed help just to get his arms over his head. Larry took it and disappeared into the closet we called the men’s room. Meanwhile, I loaded a syringe with the antivenin. I can’t lie, it felt good to stab him with the needle, though less good to hit the plunger.

“Is he gonna die?” the other kid said. He’d lost his shirt, too. I could now cite the “No shirt, no service” rule if I needed to.

“We all do, eventually,” I replied. “So make the best of it.”

Larry came out zipping up his pants. “I left ’em in the urinal,” he said.

Suddenly, there was a line, and not just men: Molly had come back and charmed her way to the front.

Mitch fought to keep his feet. “Thash a lot to shtink abou’,” he said. “You got shum balls.”

“I’d give my right arm to know how you did that,” his friend said as they limped out the door.

Ced shrugged and drank his beer. He took a napkin to the dripping venom on the smooth area along his plastic wrist and thumb, careful not to let it touch his skin.

“I did,” he said, in his snake charmer’s voice.

JM Taylor lives in Boston with his wife and son. His work has appeared in such mags and zines as Thuglit, Crime Factory, Crime Syndicate, Tough Crime, and Out of the Gutter. His novel *Night of the Furies*, was listed in Spinetingler's Best of 2013. He's currently working on a young adult spy thriller. When he's not writing or reading, he teaches under an assumed name.