Monday, March 23, 2020

Coal Black, by Chris McGinley, reviewed by Tim Hennessy

Coal Black: Stories
Chris McGinley
Shotgun Honey
(180p) 978-1-64396-058-6

In a country growing more homogenous with every generation, nowhere in America holds greater mystique and misunderstanding than Appalachia. For decades, fictional and cultural studies sought to analyze a region in crisis, struggling to reinvent itself amongst decline. Chris McGinley’s thoughtful story collection Coal Black is a journey beyond the pop-culture stereotypes into the hard realities of life in a part of the country most don’t consider until it becomes politically advantageous.

The affects and grip of opioid addiction and its impact on communities run throughout many of the stories, notably in “Hellbenders” where Sheriff Shelby Hines spends his days in pursuit of suspects under the chemical influence, futilely stemming the tide of desperate actions. When the Sheriff takes his wife to the emergency room to be treated for the early stages of heart failure, the harried hospital staff’s attention is consumed by the multitude of issues relating from drugs, specifically efforts to treat an overdose, which irritates the Sheriff.

“They seem more interested in saving a junkie than anybody else around here.”

“Well don’t let it get to you.”

“But I do let it get to me. And why shouldn’t I? I deal with these people every goddamn day.”

           Tragedy befalls Sheriff Shelby; his grief simmers as he endures a naloxone seminar with colleagues, testing his patience as former addicts in recovery lead workshops only reminding him of the cycle of dependency without hope. They’re lectured by “people whose only achievement thus far was their commitment to drugs. At least that’s the way he saw it.” Shelby’s pain clouds his judgment and leads him to embark on a quest for justice; it’s a fatalistic neo-western that opens the collection with a bang.

           “Kin to Me,” an inventive inversion of a buried treasure tale, Ephraim trespasses on coal company land, harvesting moss, when he unearths a shallow grave – in it a small man preserved in an ancient burial plot. Ephraim anonymously calls in the discovery, hoping the archaeological find would unfold differently, shedding national attention onto the forgotten area and its history.

“Ephraim got $2.00 a pound for the moss from his connection, almost a hundred bucks all told. But it was the coal company who really planned to cash in on the discovery. They launched a media campaign to celebrate the find of “Brunson Corporation Man” but the name didn’t go over as big as they had hoped.”

           What starts out as an inadvertent story of grave robbery morphs into an unforgettable genealogical heist.

           McGinley distinguishes his foray into Appalachian narratives with an infusion of folklore in several stories. Most notably, “With Hair Blacker Than Coal” which melds a tale of an abandoned baby raised by bobcats who grows to be a feral mountain woman perfectly blended along with a sheriff in pursuit of two brothers who poached a black bear. Sherriff Curley Knotts is called upon to track the Clatter brothers, a lawless, profane duo who savagely killed a black bear, taking only its paws, leaving the carcass to fester and rot. The Sheriff known for his tracking skills as much his relentless nature, heads deep into a holler that never ends, reminding him of a similar remote search and destroy mission when he served in the Mekong Delta that still haunts him. The perfectly paced story is the crown jewel of the collections (sure, we’re biased-- we originally published it). McGinley weaves a pursuit story so filled with hair-raising, breathless chills he gives the reader the sensation of being hopelessly lost deep in thick woods, an unseen rustling adding to the growing unease separating the prey from the preyed upon.

McGinley effectively uses the undefinable sense of dread giving it multiple forms, often that of an angry spirit, as in “Coal Black Haint”. Bertie Clemmons, protected early in her life when her mamaw helps defend and kill her abusive husband:

“Her mamaw nodded knowingly a week later when Bertie learned that she was pregnant. “It’s mountain instinct,” the old woman had said. “It’s the females that protects the young in these hills, not the males.” Bertie didn’t know whether she meant animals or humans.”

Years later, Bertie has become the state’s first female sheriff investigating the disappearance of Charlotte, a young girl believed to have run away, a situation reminiscent of her daughter, who ran off years earlier after they fought. A friend of Charlotte’s believes a haint got her, a theory Bertie quickly rejects as a ridiculous mountain ghost tale. The further she digs, the traumatic echoes and shame of Bertie’s past haunt her, which made her an angry ghost of her former self, as she patrols the same community trying to get it right this time.

Even though not every story fires on all cylinders--in plot mechanics, similar themes and repetitive characters--McGinley shows a progression of elements honed carefully in the multiple narratives capturing the rugged beauty of the region. He creates a sinister landscape of uncomfortably recognizable characters struggling to come to terms with their past as they forge ahead, trying to find a place for themselves in an ever-shifting country. Those unfamiliar with Appalachia would do well to spend time with McGinley’s gripping, homespun yarns.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Man Who Wouldn't, fiction by Joseph S. Walker

I was in the front seat of Roger Hay’s Cadillac, watching the traffic on Interstate 35 and diplomatically pretending that Hay wasn’t behind the wheel coughing his lungs out. I asked if I could help when I first got in and he waved me off sharply, the whole car shaking from the force of his spasms. I sat quietly and waited. The coughing subsided slowly until he was finally able to take a long drink from a bottle of water. He tucked a handkerchief into a breast pocket, both of us carefully not noticing that it was flecked with blood.

“You eat here a lot?” he asked. His voice was a rusted out car on a gravel road. “How do you stand all the damned tourists?”

We were outside the Czech Stop, a combination gas station and Czech bakery in West, Texas, about halfway between Dallas and Austin. I’d suggested it as a meeting place when Hay had called and said he was driving down from Dallas and wanted to talk. For the most part it looked like any other gas station, but there was a big parking lot to the side and there was always a line at the bakery counter.

“Best kolaches in the state,” I said. “If they served liquor I’d buy a camper and live in the parking lot.”

“I’ve done campaign events here,” he said. “Never again.

Everybody’s more interested in the fucking food than voting.” I couldn’t tell if he was stalling or reminding me who he was. “We’ve met before, you know.”

“I’m impressed you remember. That was twenty years ago, Tom Brennan’s ’88 Senate campaign.”

“You were with the Austin department then, on the family’s security detail,” Hay said. “Then you joined the Rangers. Then you retired, and now you’re private.”

“All true,” I said. “I assume you know I wasn’t popular with some of my coworkers.”

“Immaterial.” Hay was fifty years into a career as one of the most powerful political strategists, dealmakers and back-room hustlers in Texas. He hadn’t survived by talking to people before he knew their stories. “Major Andrews says you can be trusted completely.”

“Good to hear.” I sipped the to-go coffee I’d bought with my bag of pastries. “What can I do for you, Mr. Hay?”

He drummed his fingers on the wheel. “You were around the family in ’88. You must have met Jackie.”

He meant Jack Brennan, Tom’s son. Fifth generation of political Brennans, now halfway through his first term in the US House. “Sure,” I said. “He was, what, fifteen at the time. Sharp kid, if I recall right.”

“You do,” Hay said. “Top of his class at UT School of Law.”

Even through his torn-up throat Hay said UT like I was supposed to genuflect.

“And then the service,” I said.

Hay nodded. “Texas National Guard. Two tours in Iraq. Filed for his Congressional run the day he got out.”

“Got yourself a golden boy,” I said. “Tom must be proud.”

His mouth twitched at that. “Everything I’m about to tell you is in strictest confidence,” he said. “Jackie is on the short list to be Clinton’s running mate.”

I raised an eyebrow. “After one term in the House?”

“Hillary’s big negatives are going to be her age and her vote for the invasion. Not popular these days. Having a youthful war hero from a red state on the ticket checks a lot of boxes.”

“From what I read, her big problem is going to be Mr. Art of the Deal.”

Hay snorted. “I’ve been in this game a long time, Collins,” he said. “This country might, just might, be ready for a woman. It isn’t ready for a clown with a ridiculous combover and less brainpower than your average lab rat. Bank it, he’s just trying to boost his personal brand so he can slap his name on more ugly buildings.”

“Okay,” I said. “Vice President Brennan, and God bless Texas. Where do I come into this rosy picture?”

Hay reached into the back seat and handed me an envelope. “This was on my desk when I got to my office this morning.”

I took it, holding it by the edges from long training. It was a 9x12 manila envelope. Hay’s name had been written in block letters in marker, along with the word Personal, underlined three times.

“Somebody just walked in and left this?” I said. “Don’t you have security?”

“In theory,” Hay said. “Now you know why I’m coming to you instead.”

Inside the envelope was an 8x10 photograph. It was a little fuzzy, like it had been blown up from a smaller one, but the subjects were clear enough: four young men in khaki and camo, sitting around a folding table in front of a tent, desert visible in the background. Playing cards and bottles of beer were scattered on the table. The four men were looking at the camera, grinning and laughing. Jackie Brennan, his central casting good looks immediately identifiable, was one of the men. He had his arm around the shoulder of one of the others, a smaller man with jet black hair.

There was nothing else in the envelope. The back of the photo was blank. “I don’t get it,” I said.

“Look again at the guy by Jackie.” I peered at the face more closely. “Christ,” I said. “Is that Wilson Bloom?”

“Yeah,” Hay bit out. “Wilson fucking Bloom.”

I should have been quicker to recognize one of the most hated faces in America. Wilson Bloom was a good Baptist kid from Mississippi who, somehow, got radicalized during his tour in Iraq. Six months after being deployed he snuck a group of insurgents into his base in the middle of the night and joined them in a surprise attack. Twenty-nine American soldiers died, making Bloom the most famous traitor since Benedict Arnold. Four months ago he was finally captured. He was currently in a brig on an American destroyer while the brass tried to decide whether to put him on trial, send him to Gitmo, or just drop him off the side of the boat.

“Okay,” I said. “Not a great visual, but you could spin this. Say the betrayal toughened Jackie up. Or, hell, just say it was photoshopped.”

“Of course I can spin it,” Hay snapped, his voice breaking. “I’ve spun worse. But just the existence of that image is enough to keep Jackie off the ticket, maybe even keep him from holding his seat. And what worries me is there’s no note. No demand, no blackmail, no announcement that the picture is going to the press. I need to know who sent this and what the hell they want.”

“What does Jackie want to do?”

“Jackie doesn’t know about this until I decide he should. Which is never.”

I nodded. “I get four hundred a day and expenses.”

“Good enough. You want the job?”

I looked out the windshield. I could take 35 back the way I came and just keep going. Pick up Interstate 10 in Houston. Twenty-four hours of hard driving and I could be in Key West with a completely different group of tourists, waiting for the sunset and drinking something tropical. It sounded like a lot more fun than digging around in Jackie Brennan’s closets. But like my old man used to say, if it was fun, they wouldn’t have to pay you. “Sure,” I said.


Hay gave me a thousand dollars in hundreds and a thumb drive with the personnel files of the people in his office. He wouldn’t let me take the photo, and only when I got insistent did he reluctantly let me take a picture of it with my phone. I watched him have another volcanic coughing fit before he drove off, then sat in my own car looking at the image.

I could track backwards from Hay’s office, or forward from the picture. My gut told me the picture was more promising, but my client didn’t want me talking to Jackie, and I had a better chance of going bar hopping with George Clooney than of ever getting within a hundred miles of Wilson Bloom. That left the two other Marines in the picture, one a lanky redhead, the other bearded and dark with a gym rat’s physique. Neither was considerate enough to be wearing a nametag, and Hay hadn’t known their names. That was discouraging, so I looked at the pictures of Ben Franklin in my new stack of bills and felt a little better.

“The game is afoot,” I said out loud. A woman walking past my car turned and looked at me. I winked and drove away before she could ask me what the hell I was talking about.


Twenty-four hours later I still had no idea who the bearded Marine was, but I knew that the redhead’s name was Peter Mulligan and that he worked at one of the five hundred financial firms that had sprung up like weeds in Austin over the last couple of decades. I’d like to say that I got this information at a sleazy underworld bar from a slinky blonde in a painted-on dress, but mother told me never to lie. I got it the same way every other PI gets 90% of his info these days: by sitting in front of a keyboard and mercilessly pounding it into submission.

I couldn’t quickly get a list of everyone in Jackie’s unit, but I found a wire report from his initial deployment, quoting a bunkmate who said that the Senator’s son was getting no special treatment. The bunkmate had a wife, and the wife had a Facebook account and a few hundred friends, mostly the parents or partners of other soldiers. I sent friend requests to everyone on the list and enough of them accepted to give me access to reams of pictures and posts. It’s the digital equivalent of pushing every button in an apartment building’s foyer, knowing somebody will buzz you in.

Five hours in, just as my eyes were starting to cross, I found Mulligan, tagged in a group shot taken at a backyard barbecue the year before. He’d put on some weight in civilian life, but the shade of his hair and a mole on his cheek were unmistakable. That gave me his name and led me to his own Facebook page, which seemed to consist of nothing but links to stories about the UT football team. However, Mulligan’s mother posted several times a day. She was obsessed with breathlessly reporting her son’s triumphs and blissfully ignorant of privacy concerns. From Mama Mulligan I learned about Peter’s successful completion of the business degree he’d started in the service and his hiring, five months back, by an investment firm she wrote of in giddily hyperbolic terms. Since she was also giddily hyperbolic about her new coffee maker, I reserved judgment.

My back was aching, but I kept at it for another several hours before tumbling into bed at around three. I never saw the bearded man.


By eleven in the morning I was in the plaza outside the building where Mulligan worked, pretending to be engrossed in my phone. Back when I was first trained on surveillance, they told us that loitering like this was risky, too conspicuous. There’s only so long you can pretend to be reading one newspaper. Smartphones solved the hell out of this problem. Now you’re suspicious if you’re not sitting in one spot staring at your hand for hours on end.

At 12:40 Mulligan came out of the building carrying a paper bag and a bottled water. He walked two blocks to the 1st Street bridge and walked across. He wasn’t rushing, but he was a recent vet with thirty years advantage on me. I lost him for a couple of minutes before I spotted him strolling into the park. It was a pleasant spring day and there were lots of people around, walking dogs and pushing strollers. Mulligan found an empty bench near the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was halfway through his sandwich when I sat down beside him.

“Mr. Mulligan,” I said. He looked at me, smiling the smile of a man who hasn’t yet memorized all his clients’ faces. I held up my phone, letting him see the picture. “A few minutes of your time?”

The smile deflated as he absorbed what he was looking at. He looked around at the crowded park, seeing something different than he had a few minutes ago. “You a reporter or a cop?” he asked.

“Used to be a cop. Private now. Name’s Collins.” “Either way,” Mulligan said. He dropped the remaining part of his sandwich back into the bag. “I got nothing to say about Wilson Bloom.”

“Me neither,” I said. “What you got to say about Jack Brennan?”

That threw him. “Jackie?”

“The very same son of the lone star state.”

He shook his head. “You might as well walk away now. I got nothing to say about him either.”

“I think you’ve got the wrong idea. I’m not looking to hurt Brennan.” He shook his head slowly, staring off into the distance.

Pushing wasn’t going to do any good. I leaned back, looking around at the park. It was early in the year yet but you could pick out the tourists, taking pictures of the statue and the skyline across the river. The South by Southwest festival had been a couple of weeks back, flooding the city with hipsters and music nerds. I always find a reason to be out of town for the festival.

“A lot of vets I know wouldn’t come here,” I said. “The open spaces, the crowds.”

He was quiet for so long I thought he was just going to wait me out.

“I know those guys,” he said finally. He still didn’t look at me. “I don’t blame them. Me, I like it. I like watching people who aren’t looking over their shoulders all day.”

This time I was quiet.

“You never served,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

“I didn’t,” I said. “I’ve been shot at. Shot back a few times.”

“I respect that,” he said. “But it ain’t the same.”

“No. It’s not.”

We were quiet together. There was a guy a dozen feet from us, spray painted silver and standing on a box, pretending to be another statue.

Every few minutes he jerked into a new position, sending nearby kids into screams of startled laughter. Over on Riverside Drive a bus pulled away from the curb at a bad angle and the mirror banged loudly against a steel traffic sign. Mulligan’s jerk was barely noticeable.

“I got ten minutes before I’m due back,” he said. “Say your piece.”

“The picture I showed you,” I said. “It turned up in Brennan’s offices. His people need to know if somebody’s sending a message, and what it is.”

He took a breath, considering.

“Look,” I said. “You got anything against Brennan?”

“I’d die for the man,” he said.

“Okay. So if I’m lying and I’m out to hurt him, I’ve already got the picture. That’s all anybody would need to sink him, so you can’t do any harm by talking to me. But if I’m telling the truth.”

“Yeah,” he said. “What do you need?”

I held the phone up again. “I need to know who the fourth guy is, and who took the picture.”

He frowned. “Can’t Jackie tell you that?”

“It’s politics, Peter. His people haven’t told him about this. They can’t, in case somebody asks.”

Mulligan shook his head. “He always said that would happen. That his family would wipe the sand off him and pour him into a suit. Always said that if the day came when we couldn’t come around for a beer to shoot him.”

“Had a beer with him lately?”

“I don’t get to Washington much.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. If I never talk to him again he’s still my brother.”

“Okay,” I said. “Your brother doesn’t know it, but he needs help.”

He sighed. “Bearded guy is Stu Coleman,” he said. “Picture was taken by Andy Fleck.”

I wrote the names down. “Either of them have reason to be holding a grudge against Brennan?”

“Wouldn’t matter if they did,” Mulligan said. “They were both dead a week after that. Died in Bloom’s attack.” He stood up.

“Jesus,” I said. “Anybody else? Anyone in the unit who might come after Jackie?”

“Fuck no,” Mulligan said. “Jackie was a good guy. Kind of guy who’d carry your pack on top of his own and crack jokes the whole time.

Everybody loved him. Plus he saved at least twenty lives that night.”

“Okay,” I said. I got a card out of my wallet. “You think of anything else call me.”

He put the card in his pocket without looking at it. Another pricy piece of embossing wasted. “Anything I can do for Brennan,” he said. “You call me.”

“One last thing, Peter. You ever seen the picture before?”

“No,” he said. “And I hope to Christ I never see it again.”


I sat on the bench for a long time after Mulligan left. I was remembering the Jack Brennan I’d met twenty years ago, the handsome but awkward kid who seemed overwhelmed by everything happening to his family and just wanted to be left alone with his fantasy novels. Every time I saw Representative Brennan, the passionate social crusader, on TV, I had to remind myself it was the same person. A lot had changed since his dad’s time. It takes guts to be a Democrat in Texas these days, even if your district is reliably liberal Austin. And now there was this third Jack Brennan, the war hero, the universally popular GI. If I tracked down people he’d known at college I wondered if I’d hear about some fourth version. Brennan could play six degrees of separation all by himself. Then I remembered some things about who I was twenty years ago.

A drinker. Married.


I got off the bench. There was a job to do and I had two new names to play with.

As it turned out, I only needed one.


The offices of Hay Political Consulting took up one whole floor in a fairly anonymous office building just a couple of blocks from where Peter Mulligan worked. Hay could have had an office in any of the luxury skyscrapers that have sprung up in Austin recently, but he had never seen a reason to move out of the slightly seedy space he’d been in for half a century. His whole job, after all, was not to be overly visible.

He’d given me a pass for the building, and the day after I talked to Mulligan I used it. At ten in the morning I got off the elevator on Hay’s floor and strolled casually through the front door. There was no receptionist, just a maze of offices and open spaces. Everybody I could see was either on the phone or engrossed in a computer screen or both. Nobody challenged me. Nobody so much as glanced at me. Either Hay had fired his security or they were even worse than he’d said.

I followed the sound of copying machines to the bottom of the totem pole. The fourth door I poked my head into was what I was looking for. In a pinch three people might have fit into the room, if they were prepared to get to know each other very well. There was a desk that looked like the one I’d used in the first grade, a laptop computer, and a plain wooden chair. The young woman sitting on it had brown hair in an unruly pile on top of her head and was wearing a red power suit that looked like it had come straight off the set of Working Girl. She looked up, startled, as I lurked my way into blocking her door.

“Irma Helm?” I said.

“Um. Yes?” She picked up a pen, put it back down.

“Come with me.” I turned and walked back toward the central part of the office, hearing her scramble behind me to get around the tiny desk.

“Am I in trouble?” she asked, almost jogging to keep up with me. She was barely five feet tall, a good match for the room she’d been shoved into. “I swear I’ll have the Waco polls compiled by five.”

“No trouble,” I said. I didn’t want to give her the chance to start wondering who the hell I was. “Couple quick questions to clear up.” I’d spotted the door to Hay’s office on my first cycle. There was a desk for a receptionist but nobody was sitting at it. I knocked and opened the door without waiting for an answer. As soon as the door was open we could hear Hay, sounding like he was trying to forcibly evict a lung. Irma shrank back but I took her by the elbow and steered her in, closing the door behind us.

There was nothing opulent about Hay’s office. It was a working man’s space, with ancient metal filing cabinets along one wall. The shelves behind the desk were stacked high with papers and books, the desk itself bare aside from a computer and a rolodex the size of an engine block. The windows faced east but newer buildings blocked what must have once been an impressive view of the State Capitol building. The only sign of indulgence was a tray to the side of the desk with an assortment of bottles and glasses.

Hay was hunched over, hacking into a wad of tissues. He looked up in surprise as we came in and spun his chair to face away from us.

“We should go,” Irma said.

“He’ll be all right in a minute,” I said. I took her to one of the two chairs on this side of the desk and got her seated, then leaned against the wall.

Hay slowly came back to normal. He put his hands on his knees and took some deep breaths that only rattled a little. He dropped the tissues into a trash can and swung around to consider us as he drank from a glass of ice water. “Collins,” he rasped out. “You could knock.”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Hay,” Irma said. “He made me come in.”

Hay looked at her. “I’ve seen you,” he said.

“Roger Hay, Irma Helm,” I said. “Irma has worked here for two months. She does data entry in an office that would make a housefly claustrophobic.”

“Right,” Hay said. “It’s a busy place, Collins. We’re working on about two dozen national and state campaigns.”

“I’m not complaining,” Irma said quickly. “I just want to help.”

“Irma was a good hire,” I said. “Impressive application. The degree in political science from UT jumps out at you, but if you look a little deeper you’ll find her emergency contact is her mother, Emily Fleck.” I shifted my attention to Irma. “Andy Fleck was your half-brother.”

“Yes,” she said. “But I don’t understand what’s happening here.”

“Who’s Andy Fleck?” Hay asked.

“A soldier and photographer,” I said. “He took the picture you saw a couple of days ago, and then shortly afterwards died when Wilson Bloom turned.” I walked over behind Irma’s chair and put a hand on her shoulder. “Andy sent the picture to you, didn’t he?”

She had clasped her hands between her knees and was looking at the floor. “It was an email just a few hours before he died,” she said. “Teasing me about how handsome Jack—Mr. Brennan was. How he was going to set us up when they came home.”

“All right,” I said, easing into the other chair. “Irma, do you blame Mr. Brennan for Andy’s death? Do you want to hurt his career?”

“What?” She looked startled, then angry. “Of course not! Jackie was Andy’s best friend. They took care of each other.” She turned to appeal to Hay. “Sir, I only came to work here because I was grateful. Because I wanted to give something back to him.”

“Then why did you give me this?” Hay wheezed out. He opened a side drawer of his desk and held up the folder.

She shook her head. “I don’t know what that is,” she said.

“It’s the picture, Irma,” I said. “Jackie with Wilson Bloom, plus Peter Mulligan and Stu Coleman. It was left on Mr. Hay’s desk two days ago.”

“I didn’t do that,” she said. “I swear. I printed the picture, but not for that.”

“What did you do with it?” I asked.

“She gave it to me.”

I turned my head. The door was open and Jackie Brennan was leaning against the frame. He was wearing a tie but no jacket and had his sleeves rolled to his forearms. He looked for all the world like he was about to give a speech about American jobs to a bunch of guys in hard hats. I stood up as he came into the room, closing the door behind him. He walked over and shook my hand.

“Sit, please,” he said. “I don’t believe we’ve—no, wait. We ha

ve met before.” He cocked his head. “But I seem to remember a uniform.” “Long time ago, sir,” I said. “My name’s Collins. I was on security for your father’s ’88 run.”

“Of course,” he said. He smiled, and it was easy to believe that he’d been waiting twenty years just to see me again. “Officer Collins. Thank you for all you did then, but,” he turned to Hay, “what are you doing here now, if I may ask?”

“She gave this to you,” Hay said. He had the picture out of the envelope.

“She did,” Jackie said. “Last weekend. It was very kind of her.”

“I thought he’d like to have it,” Irma said. “I wanted him to know how grateful to him I was. Did I do something wrong?”

“Of course not,” Jackie said. He went over and hitched up a leg to half perch on the window sill. I settled back into my chair. “It makes me happy to know that Andy spoke so well of me.”

“Then yo

u put the picture on Hay’s desk,” I said.

“I did.” “Why?” Hay sounded half crazed. “What the hell were you hoping would happen?” “Frankly, Roger,” Jackie said, “I was hoping you would retire, or at least drop this Clinton insanity. I know how hard you’ve been pushing her people. You need to stop. I can’t possibly be on the ticket.”

“Why not?” Hay demanded.

“Because I won’t do it,” Jackie said, and just that quickly all the political polish dropped out of his voice. It was like a new person had come into the room. Yet another Jackie. “After what happened. Not just Bloom. All of it. Everything I saw happen to people who didn’t deserve any of it. I won’t ever send a single American soldier into harm’s way, for any reason, anywhere in the world.”

“As I understand it,” I said quietly, “that’s kind of a central component of the job.”

Jackie nodded. “It is the job,” he said. “So I can’t do the job. I was hoping . . . I was hoping that the picture would save me from having to say that out loud.”

“You should say it,” Irma said. “Everybody should. Andy would still be alive.”

“Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so,” I said.

“You won’t do it,” Hay hissed. I had never heard such contempt.

Jackie stirred uncomfortably. “I’m grateful for all you’ve done, Roger.”

“Grateful.” Hay put his hands on the desk and looked at Brennan. I could see a vein pulsing in his temple. “You little shit.”

“Careful, Roger.”

“Fifty years,” Hay said. “Do you know where I was fifty years ago, you little shit? In an office just like this one, talking to your grandfather. The greatest man I ever knew. He’d just given me a job. He gave me my first real drink and had me toast with him. And do you know what we toasted? To President Brennan. To putting a member of the family in the White House.”

“Grandad was a dreamer,” Jackie said.

“Fifty goddamn years,” Hay said, enunciating every word. “Every goddamn day. The party wouldn’t touch him because his wife wouldn’t stop crawling into the bottle. Then there was your father, who was too fucking stupid even by Washington standards. And your uncle Frank, who couldn’t stay away from the girls, and your uncle Jim, who couldn’t stay away from the boys, and your cousin Tad, who couldn’t stay away from the goddamn track.”

“Easy now, Roger,” Jackie said.

Hay was breathing hard, his voice strangled. “And finally we get you. Smart, good-looking, all the right tools. This has been my life, you little shit. My life. And you won’t?”

“No, Roger,” Brennan said. “I won’t.”

“Fucking right,” Hay said. His hand went into the open drawer and came out with a revolver. I jerked out of my chair as Irma screamed and the gun came around to face Brennan. The sound was the same as it always is, flatter than TV makes you think it will be.


One other thing I was, twenty years ago.



Joseph S. Walker is a member of the Mystery Writers of America whose work has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, and a number of anthologies. In 2019 his stories won both the Al Blanchard Award and the Bill Crider Prize. He lives in Indiana and teaches online literature courses.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Walker's Hollow, fiction by John Floyd

It was cold in the cab of the truck. Three of us were aboard—my older brother Lewis driving, me in the middle, my older sister Rosemary on my right. She was riding shotgun in more ways than one: a sawed-off twelve-gauge was resting on her lap and pointed at the glove compartment as if waiting for a rabbit to poke its head out. Lewis and I were armed also, with my little .22 revolver in my jacket pocket and Lewis’s double-barreled Remington propped up against the seat between his right knee and my left, its butt on the floorboards and its muzzle aimed at the roof. I hoped he wouldn’t hit a bump and blow my ear off.

Actually, I was hoping a lot of things at the moment, one of which was that we would all get back home alive, tonight. I had my doubts.

“How far is it?” Rosie asked, her solemn gaze fixed on the windshield.

“Four miles east of town,” Lewis said. “In the Hollow.”

Great, I thought. The Hollow was a place very few people went, unless they lived there. And no white people, ever. The residents of the thirty square miles of hills and fields called Walker’s Hollow were, according to our late father, darker than the rich black dirt of its bottomlands, and the invisible line that divided our culture and theirs was as real as a perimeter fence. If you believed the news media, attitudes in Mississippi had progressed a lot since the fifties and sixties—but not those in this part of Farrell County. Around here, 21st Century or not, progress or not, white folks didn’t go into the Hollow, and black folks didn’t want them to.

But we were going there tonight, as fast as our rusted pickup would take us. Why? Because we had no choice. Our cousin Bobby Earl Barnett, who lived three houses down from ours, had been beaten senseless and then dumped in his front yard about an hour ago from a car belonging to Jedediah Miller, a proud and stubborn black man who worked for the railroad. Truth be known, I sort of liked Jed Miller, and none of us liked Bobby Earl—he was a loudmouth with the aroma of a sweaty mule and the brains of a chipmunk. But he was our pa’s deceased brother’s only child, and family was family. When my aunt Earline saw Jed Miller’s old red Ford pull up to the curb in front of her house and then saw the battered and bruised face of her unconscious son as he spilled out onto her overgrown lawn, she called our ma, and after she and Ma hauled Bobby Earl’s sorry carcass into the house and finally coaxed a few groggy answers out of him, Ma sent her own three kids to set things right.

What that would involve was a little vague. I was hoping it would all turn out to be an unfortunate misunderstanding—but I knew my brother and sister had a more violent outcome in mind. Bobby Earl’s mumbled explanation, before he’d passed out again, was that he’d gone to Jed Miller’s place to discuss a financial matter and that Jed’s nephew Alonzo had insulted Bobby Earl and punched him in the nose and then the rest of them had beaten him up. I was a little skeptical of that, especially about the ganging-up-on-him part. And the story about a business matter made no sense. Bobby Earl knew as much about finance as he did about interstellar travel, and even if he did have money on his mind, what deal would he be trying to make with someone from the Hollow? All we knew for sure was that one of our kin had been assaulted and humiliated by a bunch of ignorant black folks, which in our redneck world meant they had also, by extension, humiliated our whole family. And so here we were, the three of us, tearing through the dark woods on a cold night like avenging angels to confront the forces of evil and regain our honor. I couldn’t help rolling my eyes. We thought they were ignorant?

I found myself wishing, for the tenth time, that I hadn’t been home tonight when all this happened. No one, including me, considered me a fighter—I was seventeen and nerdy and five-foot-six and 130 pounds—but I’d been told to come along on this part-investigative and part-retaliatory mission because the whole Barnett family knew I could shoot the eye out of a gnat at fifty yards, and a good shot is welcome in any armed endeavor. My only positive feeling about this trip was that the weapon I’d chosen to bring along was of a smaller caliber than what Lewis would’ve preferred. If I was forced to exact revenge tonight on some poor soul, my plan—if I could stop shaking long enough—was to shoot an arm or a leg instead of something vital.

My siblings weren’t that picky. They were both hunters but not very good marksmen (hence the shotguns), and I doubted that firing a few loads into a few of our African American neighbors would cause either of them to lose much sleep. Lewis was big and strong and mean, and Rosie was the toughest girl I’d ever known. They were twins, both of them twenty-two years old that winter. Surprisingly, both were smart in some ways—Lewis had taught me to play chess and Rosie had tutored me in high-school algebra. Unsurprisingly, both of them shared our ma’s primitive views on race relations. I didn’t. But before you think that’s admirable, you should also know I was cowardly enough to keep my liberal feelings to myself.

“How much further?” Rosie growled.

Lewis didn’t answer. He didn’t have to.

We saw lights up ahead.


We were bumping down a long hill on a rutted dirt road that had become a driveway, of sorts. We’d already passed a mailbox with the word MILLER painted on the side. Above us we could see a full moon, a floating white beacon in a sky that was mostly stars and partly clouds, with more clouds blowing in from the west. The woods seemed to have thinned out a bit. Ahead was another hill; the distant lights we’d seen were the tiny yellow squares of windows, shining through the trees halfway up the next slope.

Then Lewis slowed down. Three men stood in the middle of the road at the bottom of the hill, facing us. All three were holding guns.

Our truck eased to a stop twenty feet from the human roadblock. As we sat there waiting, the man in the center took a step closer and motioned to us to pull off to the left. I saw a muddy turnaround there, sliced into the edge of the forest. Lewis steered the truck off the road and into the cleared space, cut the engine, and switched off the lights. When our eyes had adjusted, we opened the doors and climbed out. My heart was in my throat but my gun was where it was supposed to be, in my right jacket pocket, and Rosie had tucked hers underneath her long coat. Lewis held onto his shotgun but kept it pointed at the ground. The three of us lined up in the road facing the others. The moon lit up the scene almost as bright as day. Just behind the three men was a car I recognized as Bobby Earl’s ancient Chevrolet, pulled off on the side of the road where he’d apparently left it, and pointing the other way.

The men facing us were big and black and probably in their forties, and although it was hard to make out faces I recognized the one in the middle, the one who had waved us to a stop. Jedediah Miller. He sometimes dropped in at the hardware store in town, where I worked every Saturday, and his wife Annie had been a housemaid for my ma a few years ago—a job that had ended, fast, when Ma accused her of stealing a brooch from her dresser drawer. (I later found out the real thief was none other than cousin Bobby Earl, but Aunt Earline vouched for him and Ma believed her. What a family we have.) Anyhow, Jed was now standing in front of us and holding a shotgun like the one Lewis had, also pointed—at least for the moment—at the ground in front of him. I didn’t know the other two men, but they looked familiar. Jed’s brothers, maybe.

“We been expecting you,” he said.

Lewis took a slow breath and replied, “I bet you have. You beat up my cousin. He looked half dead, to me.”

Jed nodded. “He oughta be all the way dead, after what he done.”

“What’d he do?”

“He shot my nephew.”

That hung there in the air for several seconds.

“What do you mean, shot him?” Lewis asked.

“Just what I said. Your cousin and my nephew Alonzo was arguing, bout them ten acres your grandpa sold my pa years ago, down by the river. Pa still owns it, but Alonzo and his wife been farming it awhile now. Bobby Earl come here tonight and said he wanted to buy it back. Alonzo said it wasn’t for sale. Bobby Earl said some mean things then, about our family. Alonzo took a step toward him, and Bobby Earl pulled a pistol and shot him. Almost shot me too. Would have, if I hadn’t grabbed his gun.”

Jed took a small revolver from his pocket and tossed it to the ground between us.

“That beating I gave him wasn’t enough,” he said, “but it at least satisfied me he wasn’t gonna shoot nobody else tonight. While my missus and niece carried Alonzo into the house back there to patch him up, my brothers and me loaded Bobby Earl into my car and I drove him to his mama’s place in Farrellton and dumped him in her front yard. But I suppose you know that.”

“How’d you know where they live?” Lewis said.

“You knew where I live, didn’t you? This ain’t a big town.”

Lewis stood there awhile, glowering. “You coulda called us to come pick him up. You didn’t have to throw him out of your car that way.” “He shot my nephew, Lewis. Tried to shoot me. What would you have done?”

It might’ve been interesting, if I had stopped to think about it, that neither Jed nor Lewis had mentioned—and probably hadn’t even considered—calling the sheriff about all this. In many ways we were still living in the previous century, around here. Maybe even the one before that.

A silence passed, as both sides stood there looking at the other. The wind whooshed and moaned in the pines and the leaf-bare trees beside the road. Somewhere nearby, an owl hooted.

“What do you mean, Bobby Earl wanted to buy that land?” Lewis asked.

“He wanted it back. Said it shouldn’t of been in our family in the first place, even though my pa bought it fair and square, from your pa’s daddy.”

Lewis frowned and shook his head. “This don’t sound right, Jed. Saying he wanted to buy something’s one thing, paying for it’s another. Did Bobby Earl say what he was gonna use for money? He don’t have ten bucks to his name.”

“He had money,” Jed replied. “A bag of it, he said, in his car.”

We looked past Jed at the back of Bobby Earl’s battered old Chevy. It sat there in the moonlight like a dirty frog.

“Bag?” Lewis asked.

“That’s what he told me.” “Did you look? Afterwards?”

“Yeah, we looked, after I drove him to his house and come back. There’s a grocery sack on the front seat of his car, filled with bills wrapped up in neat little stacks. Tens and twenties, at least the ones on top. Not that I seen much cash in my life, but I can count and I can multiply. Must be thirty, forty thousand dollars in that bag.”

For a long time Lewis said nothing. I glanced at Rosie, who looked deep in thought.

“Go see for yourself,” Jed said.

Lewis didn’t move. “You take any of it?”

“We ain’t thieves, Lewis. It’s all there.”

“Where’d it come from?”

“How am I supposed to know that? He ain’t my cousin. Thank God.”

Rosie and Lewis looked at each other. Nobody looked at me, which suited me just fine. But I could think as quick as anybody, and my first thought was that Bobby Earl must’ve robbed the bank. But that couldn’t be. Not that he wasn’t dumb enough to try something like that, and he was apparently carrying a gun, but his ma had told my ma that when he left the house it was already dark, sometime past six, and the banks close at four. The only other place in our little town with that much cash around—

Oh Lord, I thought. Surely Bobby Earl hadn’t done that.

I didn’t have time to dwell on it. Jed, glaring at us as a group, said, “Question is, what are we gonna do about all this? I doubt y’all drove all the way out here just to fetch his car.”

I saw Lewis raise his chin. Better that than his shotgun, I thought. Maybe we could just talk this out, like civilized human beings. But I should’ve known that wouldn’t happen.

“You’re right,” Lewis said. “It ain’t a social call, either. We came here to settle things.”

“Settle things?”

“We can’t have you beatin’ up members of our family, Jed. No matter what happened, no matter who got shot.”

Jed snorted. “What you mean is, you can’t have black boys beatin’ up white boys.”

“What I mean is, there’s a price to be paid for what you did.”

“Oh there is, you say?”

“Damn right there is.”

So much for peace and harmony. Both Lewis and Jed had narrowed their eyes and straightened their backs.

Sweet Mother Mary, I said to myself. This is how my short, meaningless life’s going to end. Fighting somebody I don’t want to fight, on a dirt road at night in the middle of the woods, because of an idiot cousin I don’t even like. I saw Jed Miller’s shoulders tense up, saw his fingers tighten on his gun—and sensed that the two big men standing alongside him were doing the same. So were my brother and sister, off to my left. I felt a bead of sweat run down my forehead and into my eye. Time seemed to grind to a halt.

We were so still, I don’t think any of us were even breathing. Except for the wind in the trees around us, It was dead quiet.

And then it wasn’t.


“Everybody stay where you are,” a deep voice bellowed, from somewhere on the road behind us. And suddenly everything went bright. I turned and squinted up the hill at two blinding white side-by-side circles. A pair of headlights had been switched on, on a less-steep stretch of the downsloping road above us and about thirty yards away—effectively lighting us up. With all our talking and the tension and the sound of the wind, we hadn’t heard the approaching car, or cars. Whoever this was—I wondered if they’d followed us here—had come up behind us in the dark with lights off and engines off, rolling slowly down the hill toward us.

As we watched, car doors opened and half a dozen men approached us on foot, all of them carefully spread out in the road to—presumably—give each a clear line of fire. They walked downhill slowly, ahead of and underneath the headlights’ beam. We could barely see them in the glare.

Without a word, my brother and sister and I had backed away from them, and were now lined up beside the three Millers. I was on one end, then Rosie, then Lewis, then Jed and his brothers, all of us lit up as if on a stage.

Something, at that moment, made me look at Lewis, and I found him staring back at me. Moving his head slightly, he glanced up into the newcomers’ headlights, and then back at me again. He was obviously giving me a silent message. Then he bent his arm at the wrist, so the palm was flat down and his fingers spread, like he was pushing down on something. The meaning of that, at least, was clear: wait for my signal.

Signal for what?

I didn’t take time to worry about it. Three of the six new arrivals had stepped out in front of the others and stood close together in a line of their own, the outside two with automatic rifles held ready. The remaining three took up positions behind them and to both sides. The front man in the middle was tall and wide, and in the wash of the headlights I’d caught a glimpse of a dark circle of cloth on a diagonal strap across his face. When he spoke, it was the same voice that had issued the earlier warning. It said, “Where’s my money?”

I recognized him. Hamilton Grogan—the only person I knew who wore an eyepatch—owned the lumberyard west of town, and several businesses on Main Street. Most of these were fronts; Ham Grogan made his living on opportunities behind the scenes. Gambling, loans, dogfighting, moonshine, prostitution, drugs. Everyone seemed to know about it, but no one—except those who partook of his services—seemed to care. Welcome to Farrell County.

More to the point, my earlier fear was confirmed: the loot Bobby Earl had stolen had come from the most dangerous source possible.

“Is everybody deaf? Where is my money?”

I glanced at Jed Miller, whose face was blank and unreadable. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, toward Bobby Earl’s car. “It’s right there behind us. In a bag on the front seat.”

“And whose car is that?” Grogan asked.

“It belongs to my cousin,” Lewis said.

“Your cousin.”

“Bobby Earl Barnett. He’s not here,” Jed said. “None of us—nobody here—knew anything about what he did. Us nor them neither.”

For a moment Grogan said nothing. Then: “And all the money’s there?”

“We ain’t thieves,” Jed said, for the second time tonight. He paused, then added, “If it’s yours, just take it and go.”

I could no longer see Grogan’s face. The high-beamed headlights were still behind and above him, blazing into our eyes, and the moon had given up and hidden behind the scurrying clouds. But I could hear the menace in what he said next, as he looked back and forth between Jed and Lewis.

“It don’t work that way. This cousin, or whoever it was, broke into my office with a mask on, made me give him all the cash from my safe. I can’t allow that kind of thing to happen.”

Where had I heard that before? But the shoe was now on the other foot. I glanced again at Lewis, who seemed to be thinking the same thing.

“How’d you know to come here?” Jed asked. I didn’t expect Grogan to answer, but he did.

“Signal from a tracker device. Tucked in there with the bills.”

Which made me wonder why it had taken him so long to get here. Then it hit me: he’d needed time to recruit some extra firepower. I didn’t recognize any of his five goons, but that didn’t surprise me. I probably wouldn’t have known them in broad daylight.

“Look,” Lewis said. “You’ve found your money. It’s here for you to take back, right now.” I detected, for the first time, a tremor in his voice, and didn’t blame him a bit. “We told you who stole it—you can go to the Law.”

“The Law don’t come into play, here.”

“They will if you kill us,” Jed said.

Grogan shook his head. “Not out here in the Hollow. They won’t care.”

“What about my family?”

“Way I see it,” Grogan said, “You were all in on it. I got a dozen gasoline cans in them cars back there, and after we’re done with you and your three visitors here, I plan to burn this whole worthless place to the ground. Then we’ll go find this cousin and take care a him too.” He paused, probably studying our faces in the light. “Y’all poked the wrong hornet’s nest, tonight.”

Jed held up a hand. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Something you should know. It ain’t just us, here. Behind us, in the road back there in the dark, is my three boys. They all play baseball. Two of ’em’s pitchers. Good pitchers.”

“And why should I care about that?” Grogan asked.

“Because we use dynamite to clear our land. The bigger stumps and such. Long time ago we used mules and chains, and tractors when we could borry ’em. Now we use explosives.”


“So each of my sons got a stick of dynamite in his hand, and a matchbook. At the first sign anything’s gone wrong, I told ’em to light the fuses and throw the sticks over our heads. You say you got gas cans with you, in the cars? That’s even better. You’ll get blown into so many pieces we’ll get tired a lookin’ for you.”

A long pause. Finally Grogan said, “You’re lying. You had no time to plan all this—we just now arrived.”

“I planned it before you got here.”

“How’d you know we were coming?”

“I didn’t,” Jed said. “I knew they was coming.” He glanced sideways, at me and Rosie and Lewis. “At the time, I thought they was my enemies.”

Grogan chuckled. “I know these three. I knew their daddy. They are your enemies.”

Slowly, Jed shook his head. “Not right now, they ain’t.”

Grogan was quiet a moment, his huge chest rising and falling. Too huge, I thought. A Kevlar vest, probably.

Finally he shook his head again. “Enough talk.” With his good eye he glanced to his right and left, at the two men flanking him, then looked at Jed and Lewis. “Time for all of you to die.”

Jed raised his gun. “And all a you, too.” In a louder voice, he said, “Are you men sure you want to get shot up, and blowed up, along with your boss?”

I thought I saw a quick look pass between the front two henchmen. I hoped they were having doubts.

“They’ll do what I tell ’em to do,” Grogan said.

He was right. They would. And it would be buckshot against assault weapons. I remembered what I’d heard would happen at times like this, that my life’s memories should be flashing before my eyes. Mine weren’t. I was just scared. I thought I might pee in my pants.

But I did find myself wondering what it was that Lewis had wanted me to do.

Then something unexpected happened. My sister Rosie, standing just to my left, stepped forward. As calmly as if strolling a city sidewalk, she marched the ten paces that separated her and Grogan and stopped three feet from him, looking up at his face. “Let me get this straight,” she said. “After all this is over, you’re going to go kill our cousin?”

“And his mama and anybody else at his house. After we burn it, we’ll go to your house, for your ma. If you got a dog, he’ll get roasted too.”

Rosie nodded, as if to herself. “One more question. Do your big bosses know what you’re about to do, here?”

“My bosses?” “The people you report to. Your business partners.” Grogan smiled. He studied her, then looked past her at us, then back again. “I report to nobody, Little Girl. I’m the only one left, the last of the family. I am the big boss.”

As soon as he said that, Rosie pulled her stubby shotgun from beneath her coat, stepped in close, and jammed the muzzle up under his chin. It was fast; Grogan looked too shocked to move. So were his henchmen. I saw her push the gun higher, saw him raise up onto his tiptoes.

And at that moment, as I stood there in the glare of the headlights, two thoughts popped into my head. The first was the meaning of Lewis’s silent “message” to me, earlier—what he wanted me to do, when I got his signal—and the second was that my sister, not my brother, was about to give me the only signal I was going to get.

“That’s all I needed to hear,” she said to Grogan, and pulled the trigger.

I saw it, and heard the blast, but I was already moving. Lightning-quick, I drew my pistol and shot out both headlights, POP-POP. Before Grogan’s body hit the ground the whole scene went pitch black.


Instinctively I went down on one knee, my little gun still ready but with no one to aim at. Everything was dark now, and as quiet as Tut’s tomb. Even the wind seemed to have died down. I heard several bumps and thumps as something landed on the roof of one of the gunmen’s cars, and realized it was probably pieces of Ham Grogan’s head. All I could do was crouch there and wait for the blaze of gunfire that would be coming at us now.

But it didn’t. Maybe because no one could see anything. I strained my eyes and my ears, trying to watch and listen. I heard no shots, no footsteps, no voices. At last one of Grogan’s men, one of the two on either side of him, said, “Everybody hold steady.” And then: “Cliffy? Go get the money.”

I saw a flashlight blink to life, and watched as Henchman Two—Cliffy?—inched his way toward us and then past us to the car Jed had identified as my cousin’s. Rosie, though I couldn’t see her, must’ve crept back into position beside me. I could hear her breathing. We heard Cliffy open the front door of Bobby Earl’s Chevy. The dome light winked on. Seconds later he shut the door again and retraced his steps. When he’d rejoined Henchman One, they opened the grocery bag and used the flashlight to look inside. Then Henchman One turned to us and said, “We’re done, here.”

The moon picked that moment to emerge from the clouds. All of a sudden we could see them again, and they could see us, and everyone stood there staring at each other, six of us and five of them. For several seconds all weapons stayed at the ready, and then, one by one, were lowered. Cliffy called something to the other three men, and one of them came over and took hold of Ham Grogan’s arms—Cliffy took the feet—and they hauled their boss’s headless body away toward the cars.

Before Henchman One could follow them, Lewis said to him, “What about my family? What about Bobby Earl and his ma, and our ma?”

He turned in our direction. “We got no problem with them. Or with any of you, anymore. We’re splitting this five ways, and Grogan already paid us for tonight. Everybody just stay cool.” Having said that, and holding eye contact with Lewis, he reached into the bag, scooped out three or four bound stacks of cash, and dropped them on the ground. “Oops,” he said. Then he turned, bag in hand, and headed toward the cars.

Within seconds we heard motors cranking, and the two vehicles backed slowly up the hill. When they reached a spot wide enough to turn around in they reversed direction and growled away into the night, the one without headlights following closely behind the other.


Jed Miller stepped forward and picked the money up off the ground. The thick packets looked like greenish-white bricks in the moonlight. Then he looked up at Rosie. “You saved us,” he said. “Nobody coulda seen that coming, what you did. You saved us all.”

She didn’t reply. The moon was dipping in and out of the clouds now, but there was enough light to see her stark, pale face.

“Here,” he said, holding the cash out to the three of us. “This ain’t mine.”

“It ain’t ours either,” Lewis said. “Use it to buy more dynamite.”

Jed let out a laugh. It sounded strange, considering what we’d just been through. “I got no dynamite. I don’t even have a son—just two daughters, and they don’t play baseball. You think it made a difference?”

“I think it did. Made ’em have second thoughts, anyway.” Lewis paused. “So, what do you use to clear them tree stumps you were talking about?”

“Mules and chains, like always.”

We all stayed quiet a minute. Clouds kept moving across the moon, light and then dark. Even down here between the hills, I could again feel the cold wind in my face. My knees were still shaking.

“One more question,” Lewis said. “Why were you so quick to side with us against him, instead of with him against us? You coulda told him you had nothing to do with the robbery.”

“I did tell him that.”

“You didn’t try very hard.”

“He wouldn’t have believed me.” Jed sighed, his breath a puff of white swept away by the wind. “They was gonna take us out anyway, Lewis, sooner or later—me and my family. This thing tonight just gave him an excuse. Ham Grogan and me go way back.”

“Tell me you didn’t ever work for him.”

Another laugh. “No. I’m the wrong color, for that.”

“How, then? How do you know him?”

Jed’s smile vanished. “I’m the one who put his eye out.” I saw Lewis’s jaw drop. “We always heard Grogan’s eye was cut out in a knife fight,” he said. “In a Jackson bar.”

Jed shook his head. “He lost that eye behind the Farrellton post office, when we was teenagers. I had an old Bullseye slingshot back then, and was about as good with it as Willy there is with that twenty-two.” He looked at me and added, “That was fine shootin’, young man.” Before I could respond, he turned again to Lewis. “Otis Randall had done something Grogan didn’t like, and Grogan cornered him behind the P.O. and knifed him. Right in the gut. He was about to stab Otis again, had a switchblade held up high and ready, and me and my slingshot put a half-inch ball-bearing into his left eye, from my hiding place in the bushes across the street. Otis Randall lived, and Grogan wound up half blind. He never knew who did it, and I never volunteered the information. I think he figured it was me, though.” Jed paused again. “I meant what I said—if Bobby Earl hadn’t brought all this down on us tonight, it woulda been something else, one of these days. Grogan’s hated me a long time.”

Jed fell silent awhile, after that, and then something seemed to catch his eye. “Miss Rosemary,” he said, “I believe you got some blood on your face, there.”

Rosie blinked as if jarred awake. Dully she wiped at her cheek and forehead with a sleeve. “Guess I do. Buck and Cliffy probably got some on them too.”

“Who?” “The two fellas standing there beside Grogan.”

“You knew ’em?”

Rosie didn’t reply. She had zoned out again, staring dully into the distance.

“Buck Harris and Clifton Lowe,” Lewis answered. “Both just got out of prison. Rosie dated Buck a couple times, in high school.”

Jed gave Rosie a thoughtful look. “That explains some things.”

“Maybe it’s like that dynamite you dreamed up,” Lewis said. “It made ’em stop and think for a bit. And during that time I guess they realized that not everybody had to die, tonight.”

Jed nodded. “The only one who did, deserved it.”

“I hope the sheriff takes that view,” Rosie murmured.

“The sheriff won’t find out about it. Grogan’s group won’t talk, and me and my family sure won’t. It’s like that peckerwood said a while ago: we’re done.” He paused. “I expect they already dumped what’s left of Grogan’s body in the swamp between here and town.”

Everyone fell silent then, and I knew why. No one knew what to do next. We were like strangers who’d survived a terrible accident, and now whatever had happened beforehand . . . well, it just didn’t seem all that important.

Lewis cleared his throat and said, “Your nephew—Alonzo. Will he be all right?”

“Yeah.” Jed touched a shoulder. “Upper arm, straight through. He’ll be fine.”

Lewis nodded. “Bobby Earl will too. Well, he won’t be fine—he’ll still be an asshole. But he’ll recover.”

After an awkward silence, Jed said, “I’m not sorry I beat up on him.”

“I know.”

“And I’m glad he’s not a good shot.”

Lewis almost smiled, at that. “None of us is, except Willy.”

I barely heard this. I was watching Rosie, who was still looking a little shellshocked. Brave or not, tough or not, she’d just killed a man, and it was getting to her.

“So we’re all square, you and us?” Jed looked at me before focusing again on Lewis.

“Yeah,” Lewis said. “Truth is, if Grogan had caught any of my family alone, tonight, without you guys, he’d a killed us. Same goes for you, if we hadn’t showed up. Right?”

“That’s right.”

I decided I’d had enough of this. I looked at Lewis, nodded toward my sister, and said, “It’s time to go.”

He caught my meaning. Pausing only to pick up Bobby Earl’s revolver off the ground, he looked at Jed and said, “Can we leave his car here till tomorrow?”

“That’d be fine.”

Then Lewis did something I never would’ve dreamed I would live to see: he stepped forward and shook hands with each of the Millers. He waited till last for Jed, and their gazes held a moment as they clasped hands.

We were halfway to our truck, the others watching us leave, when Lewis stopped and turned to face them.

“About them stumps,” he said. “If you ever need to borrow a tractor . . .”

Jed smiled, and nodded.

The trip back home was considerably slower, and calmer too. Twice Lewis asked Rosie if she was okay, and both times she mumbled that she was, though I’m not sure any of us was really okay. We’d been through a lot tonight, and learned a lot. Certainly none of us would ever again see Walker’s Hollow the same way.

“What’ll we tell Ma?” I asked.

“We’ll say the matter’s settled,” Lewis said. “And we’ll never talk about it again. Ever.” He turned, his face greenish in the glow from the dashboard lights, and looked at us both. “Understood?”

“Understood,” I said. Rosie nodded.

Outside, the clouds were gone and the moon was out. It sailed along just above the trees south of the road, keeping pace with us all the way home.

John M. Floyd’s short stories have appeared in AHMM, EQMM, The Strand Magazine, Mississippi Noir, The Saturday Evening Post, two editions of The Best American Mystery Stories, and many other publications. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John is also an Edgar nominee, a three-time Derringer Award winner, and a recipient of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s lifetime achievement award. His seventh book, The Barrens, appeared in late 2018.

Monday, March 2, 2020

The BIg Ticket, fiction by Stefen Styrsky

Later, driving away in his brother’s vintage `72 Lincoln, Frank thought maybe he was wrong. He tried catching his face in the door mirror to make sure the bandage across his nose hadn’t blown away, but he couldn’t get the angle right.

He asked Martin how he looked.

“Like someone punched you in the nose,” Martin said and pushed in the cigarette lighter.

“I mean the swelling,” Frank said. “Is it worse?”

“About the same.”

The lighter popped up, ready. Martin pulled it out and rolled the handle in his fingers.

“I need a cigarette,” he said.

“Don’t start,” Frank said.


Frank hadn’t seen Dean up close for at least ten years, but there was no mistaking his brother on TV, on News Channel 4, a bad dream suddenly real. He swallowed hard the coffee he’d meant only to sip and felt it scald his throat, the pain made worse by the contrary impulses to get it down or bellow in agony.

Like all security footage, the shot was at an angle from above, God’s-eye view of the clerk and the register. Grainy black-and-white, faces muddy. The guy in the video resembled any millions of guys out there. A bald, middle-aged white guy, face a wad of dough with raisin eyes. Windbreaker that did nothing to hide his gut.

But Frank knew. Knew it the way you hear a person say, “Hey” on the phone, and catch right away who they are, the mood they’re in, whether they’re sad or angry, sick or hungover.

The guy comes into frame, takes a piece of paper out of his pocket and compares whatever’s on the slip to the winning Powerball numbers posted next to the cigarette case. He gestures to the clerk. He thrusts the ticket at the man, points at it. When the clerk reaches for the paper, the guy jerks it against his chest. Then both his hands go up into the air.


That was how he always celebrated the winning shot whenever they played one-on-one in the driveway. Raised hands like a ref signaling touchdown. The pumping fists with a shout of “Loser!” came a second later. And then the side-to-side bobbing of the head. That’s what nailed it for Frank. The tick-tock of the guy’s skull in the video was unmistakable. His brother had won the Powerball.

“Martin.” Frank sat forward on the recliner. “You’ve got to see this.”

By the time Martin came in from the kitchen, the segment had ended and a commercial was on. Because a single winning ticket – one that nobody had claimed yet – had been sold in the area and the footage was from a convenience store a county over it ran again, the newscasters speculating maybe this guy was the winner.

“That’s Dean,” Frank said.

“Your brother?”

“My brother has won three-hundred-million dollars.”

Frank pushed himself out of the recliner. The move shot a fiery spike through his left knee but he ignored it, reminding himself not to stand so fast. Facing Martin, he said, “Some of that money is mine.”

Martin peered at him as he took a drag on his e-cigarette. The tip burned like a real one. “Guy always had a talent for luck,” Martin said.

Frank limped towards the bedroom. The plastic runner laid over the carpet stuck to the soles of his feet. Cheaper than replacing the worn shag. The strip was like a conveyer belt, ushering him forward.

“Assholes prosper,” he yelled over his shoulder as he dug through the mason jar on the bureau where they kept the car keys, also filled with greened pennies and Martin’s AA chips. In his rush, Frank knocked the jar over and watched Martin’s bronze six-month chip clatter down into the floor register.

“Shit,” Frank said. “Your chip fell into the heater.”

He put on his shoes while thinking of various negotiating tactics. There was always the tire iron in the car.

Martin was at his shoulder. “You don’t even know where he lives.”

“Oh, hell, of course I do.” With a foot he swept the mess of coins underneath the bureau. “I just hated him too much to ever go see him.”

“Slow down,” Martin said.

“I’ve been living in his shadow since we were kids.”

His knee buckled and he braced himself in the doorframe. Back when he boxed, Frank loved the morning after a fight, when his face felt like a wet sponge and it hurt to smile, even blink.  There was nothing like a little pain to let you know you were alive. A little pain you knew would go away. But his knee was damaged beyond a little pain. A doctor said it was permanent. And was he glad he was alive? All he could say was a share of the jackpot would help that book balance.

“My bum knee is his fault,” Frank kept on after recovering. “He put us on the outs with Angeline.”

“Don’t do something stupid.”

Frank shrugged him off. As if he needed a warning, as if he didn’t know how stupid his whole crappy life was already.

The car engine hacked through a couple turns before it jumped to life. Frank gave the gas a gentle press, allowing the engine to limber up before he put it in gear. Just as he was about to take a slug from his flask, Martin came down the driveway, stirring the insides of his shoulder pack as he trotted to the car.

“This is between me and Dean,” Frank said.

“I have a meeting in twenty minutes. How else am I getting there?”

“I’m not picking you up after,” Frank said, working the stick. “I might be a while.”

Martin got in.  “Jeanne will give me a ride home.”

They bounced onto the street.

“I know I had it,” Martin muttered, still pawing through his bag. “Have you seen my

“What chip?”

“The six-months one.”


“I thought I heard you mention it.”

“Must’ve been something else,” Frank said.

Martin looked him full on. “I heard you.”

“I didn’t say anything. Why would I care about your chip?”

“That’s right, it’s just a goddamn chip.” Martin dumped the bag into his lap. Keys jangled, an Altoids tin, pens, comb.

“I just had it,” Martin said. He flicked through loose change, tissue, single chalky mints speckled with lint and dirt. He searched the pockets, turned the bag over again and gave it a solid shake. Out plopped a Smirnoff vodka mini.

“I guess that chip doesn’t matter anyway,” Frank said.

“It’s old. Something I’d forgotten about. Look, it’s not even open.”  Martin dropped the glove box and moved to store the bottle.

Frank snatched it from him and tossed it out the window. “Are you crazy?” One hand on the wheel, still watching the road, he leaned down as far as he could and groped beneath his seat.

“What?” Martin said.

“Looking for the rest.” The only thing he felt was his own flask.

“There isn’t any.”

“I don’t want you hurt,” Frank said. “You’re miserable on booze.”

“Take care of yourself.”

“Doing just that.”

“Dick,” Martin said. He clicked on his e-cigarette and drew at it while staring out of the window.


Frank swung the car into the lot of the shopping plaza and backed into a space near the road, eager to drop Martin off and be on this way. His anger had slipped a few notches, replaced with more urgent thoughts of a bathroom. He’d used the can before they’d left, but already he had to pee. Morning coffee always ran through him that way.

Martin looked up from his phone. “I’ll be damned. He’s still using that alias?”

“No reason not to. He was the wonderkid. The money maker. Angeline loved him.”

His knee really hurt when he got out. Martin watched as he made a few limping circles around the car, hoping that would loosen it up. He caught his reflection in a side window and quickly turned away. Something about how the light bounced off the glass so that all his bumps and cracks sprung into high relief. Pouches beneath the eyes. Two lines that carved along both sides of his mouth; he looked like a ventriloquist dummy. He was punching towards fifty, but still.

“You going to be okay?” Martin asked.

“After I take a whiz in the alley. Now come on. I’ll call you when I know something.”

An orange Mustang roared into the lot and skidded nose-to-nose with the Taurus.

Frank couldn’t make out who was behind the tinted windows, who might be gunning for him. About a dozen people came to mind. He glanced around the parking lot, the Dollar Store, Subway, Costume Canyon. It was the kind of place cops came through now and then. He hoped that would keep the upcoming shenanigans to a minimum.
Two men stepped out. The blond driver looked like someone Frank knew, only a lot younger. The passenger was so tall his waist was nearly even with the rooftop. And not just tall, but big. Shoulders the size of bowling balls, fingers as thick as baby arms.

“Been a while,” the giant said.

“Georgie,” Frank said. “What gives?”

“You know.”

Frank heard Martin slip out of the car, quick, not letting the door catch when it closed. “Know what?” Frank asked, stepping towards Georgie, talking more. “How’s Angeline doing?”

Up came a hand that could’ve high-fived a stop sign. “Far enough, Frank.”

Now the driver spoke. “Give us the ticket and this will work out for everyone.”

Where did Frank know him? He was really good looking. The loose way he carried himself, the tight shirt, and the half-smirk on his face showed he knew it too.

“Is your dad Ed Grayson?”

The dude closed his door. “Fuck the chitchat. We want that ticket.”

Ed Grayson had certainly been politer. Frank sensed Martin sliding along the hood of their car, stepping slowly while Frank kept everyone talking.

“He was a good man, Ed Grayson,” Frank said. “Treated me right.”

“I’m not going to ask again.”

If the kid wasn’t carrying, something was wrong with the world. Frank knew the gun was bound to come out and then he and Martin would be in the back of the Mustang going somewhere they definitely didn’t want to go. If Angeline was involved that might mean their last car ride anywhere.

He looked at Georgie. “Talk to me.”

Georgie’s hand came down heavy on the car roof.

“Not so hard,” Grayson said.

Georgie’s throat bobbed. “We saw you on tv.”

His feet stopped moving. “What?”

“Not a smart thing, getting caught on tv,” Georgie said.

“Lucky for us you’re out from under your rock,” the other guy said.

“That was my brother,” Frank said.

“Wait, wait,” Martin said. “How’d you know we’d be here?”

A voice behind them. “Somebody in group recognized you. Word travels.”

Frank spun around.

Dean. Smiling his asshole grin that hadn’t dimmed one watt, hands on hips, logo on his t-shirt Stop Plate Tectonics. Frank’s eyes whipped up and down. His brother looked good, well-rested. Trim. The paunch he’d seen in the video was gone. And he was wearing sandals as if he was on some sort of beach vacation.

Then the shock wore off and Frank’s anger dialed all the way up. He made a fist and lowered his chin.

“Peace, brother,” Dean said, hands empty, palms open.

“The ticket,” Grayson said

Frank pulled his attention back around. He had to focus. Things were moving too fast. Georgie and Grayson were the problem. Dean could wait.

“I don’t have the ticket,” Frank said, holding the man’s gaze.

Grayson said, “Don’t screw with us.” The anger in his voice meant the gun was coming out. Frank sprang at Georgie. Georgie caught him with a stiff-arm in the chest. The other hand chopped Frank on the clavicle. He fell across the hood and swallowed a scream as pain lanced his knee.

There was a meaty smack and when Frank looked up Grayson was leaning against the car, a hand to his cheek and blood trickling through fingers from where Martin had landed his forehead. Martin stood a couple feet back, contemplating a long-barreled, chrome-plated .357 in his hand almost as if he wasn’t sure what it was.

Frank did a pushup and stood. He shook out his leg.

“You said there’d be no trouble,” Georgie said, talking over Frank at Dean.

“Keys,” Frank said.

With the gun, Martin waved Grayson aside and reached for the steering column.
But the deep rumble-purr of the idling V-8 gave Frank an idea. “No. We’re taking the car.”

“Nope,” Grayson said.

The magnum’s hammer clicked. Grayson ducked his head and moved around to Georgie.

“How about we trade?” Dean said. “Don’t want to leave these poor guys stranded.”

Frank got behind the wheel of the Mustang, turned off the radio, and backed out so Martin had a clear way to the passenger door. He waved at Grayson and Georgie standing long-faced and angry. Grayson’s eyes radiated thoughts of murder.

Dean called out. “What about your brother?”

Frank flipped him the bird. He’d tipped off Georgie and Grayson about where Martin
would be. He deserved whatever they paid out.

“He has the ticket,” Martin said.

“Get in,” Frank said.

He punched the gas and felt the yank of speed. The rear of the Mustang popped over the curb and snapped a small tree in half. He kept in reverse. At the street he stomped the brakes, skidding into a half turn that put them facing the right way and then slapped the engine into drive. It’d been forever since he’d driven a car that did what you told it to and it was so good.

Martin tossed the gun into the first storm drain they passed. Frank wished he’d remembered to grab his booze.


His brother’s Chevy gave a nice chug when you applied the gas.

Martin opened the glove compartment and turned towards Frank, smiling. He held up a pack of unopened Camels.

“Jackpot,” Martin said. His smiled turned into a wince.

He lit one, cupping the electric lighter, pulling hard to beat the wind slapping around
their heads.

Frank watched him. He watched Martin lean back and sigh and let out smoke.

“What?” Martin coughed and wiped his lips. “In the grand scheme, it hardly matters.”

Frank took out a flask from the leg pocket of his shorts. He unscrewed the cap with thumb and finger; a move perfected over years while drinking on the road.

“That’ll make the bleeding worse,” Martin said.

“As you said, it hardly matters.”


Frank pushed the gas to make the light crossing Georgia Avenue. His stomach fluttered as the car rose on its shocks going over that hump at the center of every intersection, the sudden lightness that only comes with speed. It was embarrassing the way it sent nice, cozy ripples down into his balls. My god, I’m pathetic, he thought, glancing over at Martin and realizing it had been a while. Just as embarrassed thinking about it with Dean hunched in the back smirking at him in the rearview.

They turned into a residential neighborhood. He had no idea where they were going, or where they were.

“Do I really look that bad?” Frank asked. “The guy in that video was one ugly mother.”

 “Security footage,” Martin said. “No one looks good.”

“Yeah, but everyone thinks it was me, not Dean.” He spoke to Dean through the mirror. “I was always the better-looking brother.”

Martin massaged Frank’s bad knee. “It’s why I married you.”

“You guys are married?” Dean asked. “Congratulations.”

“Figure of speech,” Martin said. “Frank here isn’t the romantic type.”

Frank glanced down at himself: the lip of fat frowning over his belt, legs a bit thick. “I watch too much tv. Maybe I should go for walks after dinner.”

“We’ll go together,” Martin said.

“That’d be nice.” He didn’t want to think about the bags under his eyes or that one time he’d laid a hand mirror on the bathroom counter and glimpsed his downturned face, the sagging jowls, his chin looking ready to slop away, his face not a face but a rumpled bedsheet.

“Speaking of,” Dean said from the back. “I’m starving. Let’s hit the drive-thru. Then you can get me to my car.”

Frank pulled into a McDonald’s, and catching Martin’s disapproving look, said, “I’m getting a salad.”

Martin yelled across Frank for a cheeseburger and fries. Dean said he’d have the same thing. He passed Frank a twenty.

“You could at least support me in my decision,” Frank said.

“I am,” Martin said. “It’s good you’ve decided to eat better.”

“With that calorie bomb you ordered? How would you feel if I still drank?”

Dean uttered a quiet “Not good, Frank,” and then shrank out of sight.

Martin settled his hands on the dashboard and stared at the car in front of them. “Go fuck yourself.”

“Not like you are.”

“Try losing some weight,” Martin said.

Frank was good with pain. He could take it. But the comment left him weakened and empty. His shoulders dropped and he slumped forward and clung to the wheel.

Now it was Dean’s turn. “Boys, no lover’s quarrel in front of the brother.”

“I was only asking for support,” Frank said.

“And I support you,” Martin said. “I can do that with a cheeseburger.”

Frank paid and squealed off without thanking the young woman at window. The meaty, salty smell of the burgers and fries made his mouth water. It also made him mumble angry inanities, none of which roused Martin to the bait.

Dean directed him to a park where there was a picnic shack. Afternoon on a weekday and no one was there. “I stashed my car nearby. Wait for me.” He walked off, eating the burger as he went.

Frank watched Martin flatten the burger’s paper wrapper, dump the fries on it, and squeeze ketchup over them.

“Fry?” Martin offered.

Frank gave him a nasty look and stabbed a wad of oily lettuce into his mouth, large enough the juices slipped out between his lips while he chewed.

Martin shrugged and bit the fry in half.

Frank sighed through his nose. He looked at Martin, jaw happily rolling. He studied
the age-broadened face, the wrinkles around his eyes, the ladder of lines ascending his forehead. Frank didn’t think any of it was ugly. As a map of their shared history, he found it familiar, tough, and handsome. Underneath he could still see the young guy he first met when they were skip-tracers.

He swallowed and took Martin’s hand. “He’s toying with us. We should take off.”

“I thought you wanted some of that money.”

“Can I confess something?”

Martin was quiet so Frank continued. “I’ve been drinking in secret. I couldn’t give it up but I didn’t want you to think I wasn’t committed to you.”

“I know,” Martin said. “You’re good at acting sober but I could tell.”

“It’s that I feel really bad about it. You deserve better.”

“You’ve been under a lot of stress. Living with me hasn’t been easy.”

“When we get home, I’ll pour out everything,” Frank said. I’ll go to meetings. Not yours, other ones.”

“You’re not an alcoholic, Frank.”

“But a break can’t hurt. I think it might help with my moods.”

A car drove past and then turned around. It was the Taurus.

“Get in the car,” Frank said. Martin jammed the burger in his mouth and balled the
paper around the fries. Frank left his salad.

The other car was behind the Mustang before they reached it. Georgie hopped out, pointing a .38. The pistol was a squirt gun in his hand. The bullets were big enough though.

“A LoJack,” Frank said, really only talking to himself.

“Dumbass,” Grayson said. A square of white gauze was taped below his left eye and he glared daggers at Frank.

“Let’s start again.” Georgie resettled his grip on the gun. “We want the ticket.”

“I don’t have it. Dean won the lottery.”

That made Georgie waver, the pistol coming down before he thought better and put it up again. He handed the gun to Grayson and then closed the distance. He caught Frank in the jaw with a meaty palm. Frank saw a black starburst and stumbled into the grass. Georgie’s fingers rifled through his pockets, turning out keys, phone, wallet. He picked out driver’s license, Metro card, money, and let them fall to the ground.

Holding his jaw, Frank said, “I don’t have it.” His mouth had trouble working. Martin came over and helped him stand. Georgie gave him a look that threatened another slap.

“He doesn’t have it,” Martin said. “Do you think we’d be fooling around like this if we’d hit the jackpot?”

“It’s Dean you want.” Frank was angry, but also annoyed he had to keep repeating himself.

Georgie knuckled Frank in the mouth and put him down again.

A car engine growled, tires screeched and when Frank looked up he saw his brother Dean in his convertible Lincoln cross-T with the Taurus and the Mustang.

Dean stood on the bench seat, a shotgun pointed at Georgie and Grayson.

“Frank. Martin. Get your asses in the car,” Dean said.

Frank rose to his knees, and then climbed Martin the rest of the way upright. His tongue was sloshy with blood. He cupped his mouth and felt blood drool down his wrist. He stiff-legged it over to the Lincoln, hopped butt first over the rear door and fell onto the back seat.

Dean kept the gun trained. “Drive,” he told Martin.


From the back of Dean’s bald head Frank saw a crease of skin broaden into a smile and he thought it the most logical thing that at any moment it would call him a loser.  He must’ve gotten hit pretty hard.

He turned his hand over, afraid of what he’d see. Smeared red, blood also tendrilled down his wrist and forearm. He felt more blood drying sticky on his face in the speeding wind.

“I knew you’d show up,” Frank said.

Dean looked at him. The sun shone on his smooth and buffed scalp. His eyes were alert and moving across Frank, taking in details and making judgements.

“You were fat,” Frank said. “How’d you lose weight so fast.?”


“Makes sense. You didn’t want to be recognized.”

Martin cut in. “Frank, he wanted to be recognized as you.”

The car turned and Frank sank against the door. He righted himself. Dean’s expression was blank. But Frank knew him, they were brothers after all. Where Dean might fool a poker table, the tell glowed as brightly as the sun on his burnished dome.

“You wanted them to come for me.”

“The sea might look calm,” Dean said. “I had to chum the water and watch what sharks surfaced.”

“Where am I driving?” Martin asked.

Dean turned on his phone and let the GPS lady talk to Martin.

“Why?” Frank said.

“You’re the only person who looks like me,” Dean said. “I’d have much preferred a resemblance to Tom Cruise.”


They went north on the Beltway and then west to a house lost out past Rockville. Yellow stucco, set back from the road. Trees blocked the view on the other three sides. Hidden, but no so well it looked conspicuous.

Empty beer cans dotted the lawn and a car door leaned against the front porch. Martin followed the dirt stripes of tire tracks to the detached garage.

The front was set up to make the place look like a dump. Dean led them around the back where there was a pool, blue and edged in smooth marble. Slate steps followed the rise to the patio with a built-in grill and a hot tub.

Frank kneeled over the pool and splashed his face and hands clean of blood. The water felt good and he lay down on a deck chair catching a nice shade.

“Come inside,” Dean said.

Frank closed his eyes. Nope. The pool and hot tub were enough. He wasn’t letting Dean show him how well he’d done, a house full of new furniture and stainless-steel kitchen appliances, and he bet, a full bar with installed beer taps, and a mini-fridge underneath. Probably a big screen LCD tv in the bedroom, floor safe, panic room. Nope, he wasn’t letting Dean rub it in or grinding his teeth while Martin cooed fawning compliments.

“Bring me a beer when you come back,” Frank said.

“Can’t, brother. I’m sober.”

“Not you too,” Frank said.

“You’re such an asshole,” Martin said.

Frank put his arms behind his head. “What? I meant that I didn’t know he had a problem.”

“No. What you meant was, ‘Shit, another person I can’t let me see get soused.’ You’re so selfish. All you think about is how my sobriety affects your drinking.”

Frank poked an eye open. The pair hovered over him the way the nuns did in grade school. Heads trembling on goose necks, all serious faces and forced concern. He laughed and shook his head and went back to darkness.

Martin talked again. “Have a drink Frank. We’ll manage just fine. You okay with that, Dean?”

“Yep,” Dean said. “Drink up, Frank.”

“I know you have a flask,” Martin said.

What was worse? The smug tone in Martin’s voice or the fact he was taking Dean’s side? After the things he’d done for Martin during those years when his drinking had put him in the hospital over and over. The weeks and months Martin couldn’t work because he was either too drunk or too crazy with the DTs.  God, he hated the way Martin’s problems ran his life, had been running his life for forever. And now he was siding with his asshole of a brother. What happened to love? Where was loyalty?

He sat up. He took out a flask and made a show of slowly unscrewing the cap. He tilted it to his lips, didn’t swallow but held the bourbon on his tongue and let the fumes burn his nose before taking it down with a wide-mouthed “ahhh.”

A leaf spiraled into the pool. It floated on the still surface, not a ripple.

Martin hauled on his e-cigarette. The smoke evaporated after it rolled over his head. Real smoke would have hung longer in the air.

“These days I’m doing the vape,” Dean said.

“Still hooked on the glowing tip,” Martin said, tilting the e-cigarette in scissored fingers. “I tried the vape but ended up smoking anyway.”

“Come on,” Dean slapped Martin on the shoulder. “Let’s leave Frank to his nap. There’s juice and sparkling water in the fridge.”

Frank watched them walk toward the house, the two so close their shoulders bumped. Martin said something he couldn’t hear and Dean laughed and did that rocking motion with his head. Frank was on his feet and hopping after them like a man in three-legged race.

“That’s enough,” he said, rounding on them. “I’m tired of you making fun of me.”

“What did I do?” Dean asked.

“I’m talking to Martin. After everything. Blackouts and hospitals and me working so you could take the time off to dry out.”

“Some other time, Frank,” Martin said and tried to push past him.

Frank pushed him backwards. The downward slope at his back, he sat heavily, his e-cigarette jumping out of his hand and disappearing into the grass.

Dean came at him and Frank felt his boxer’s reflexes – almost as if they’d been waiting for an excuse -- snap in gear. He faked left and landed a right hook to Dean’s gut, heard him grunt and then slapped Dean’s bald head the way Georgie had slapped him earlier. He followed Dean as he rolled down the slope and hoped his brother stood up so he could hit him again.

“Frank,” Martin said.

He turned and Martin punched him in the nose. The tag watered his eyes. Frank jabbed right and again sat Martin on his ass.

Dean stood and pulled out a .38 snub-nose. “Brother, you’re such a loser,” he said. Frank grabbed his wrist and punched with the other hand. Dean’s head jerked backed once, twice -- the gun went off but Frank didn’t feel anything -- third punch teeth cut Frank’s knuckles. A second shot tore into his side. He punched Dean again and let go.

Dean fell to his knees and dropped the gun. Panting, exhausted, Frank sank to his haunches. The pistol lay between them. They stared at each other. Frank picked up the .38. He pointed it at Dean and shot him in the chest. Dean lay back like a man going to sleep.

“I win,” Frank said.

While they were looking for towels to stop Frank’s bleeding, they found the lottery ticket right there on the kitchen counter.


“Mind taking the wheel a second?” Frank asked.

Martin held the car steady while Frank adjusted the roll of paper towels pressed to his side, a sloppy red mass soaked through to the cardboard tube. At least he’d only taken one. But that first bullet hadn’t gone wild. It bounced off Martin’s hip and lodged below his bottom rib. Luckily he wasn’t bleeding as much as Frank.

Frank dug out the other flask he carried and had a swig. “Give me a cigarette,” he said.

Martin lit one and stuck it between Frank’s lips. Frank handed him the flask. Martin drained it and tossed it into the back seat.

Shut tight in the unused and perfectly clean ashtray was the ticket. It bore a bloody thumbprint but the numbers remained clear.

Frank leaned onto the steering wheel. He was having trouble staying awake. “How much farther?”

Martin drew on his cigarette. He went to answer and instead coughed. Blood speckled the windshield.

“Not too far,” he said.

The hospital. It wasn’t far.

Stefen Styrsky's criminally minded fiction has also appeared in Switchblade Magazine, Orca, and The Offing. His essays on film noir sometimes appear on the website Vague Visages. He lives in Washington, DC.