Monday, April 6, 2020

Chaser, by Dharma Kelleher, reviewed by Rider Barnes

Dharma Kelleher
Chaser
310 pages
Pariah Press
$15.99

Dharma Kelleher’s Chaser is a hell of a good time. It follows Jinx Ballou, a bounty hunter living in Phoenix, Arizona. Throughout the book, she tracks down her skips, all while dealing with Chechen mobsters, her boyfriend’s shady past, and perhaps most importantly: being outed as transgender. The resulting book is a thrill.

The book opens with a standard job for Jinx, but shortly after being outed, she is blacklisted by her bail bond agency, leaving her one option for work. She has five days to hunt down Holly Schwartz, a seventeen-year-old disabled girl, who was recently charged with the murder of her mother. Following her trail leads Jinx into the sight of Milo Volkov, a Chechen mobster and sex trafficker who develops a discomforting obsession with Jinx after she disrupts an FBI sting operation in one of his bases of operation.

Jinx herself is an entertaining character, with elements of the average crime protagonist, but with several refreshing, humanizing qualities. ““According to the map, the cabin should be a mile ahead on the left.” Tree branches scraped the side of the Gray Ghost, like fingernails on a chalkboard. So much for my new paint job.” Her evening might be occupied by chasing criminals, but she cosplayed Wonder Woman the previous morning. She practices parkour and krav maga, but she drives an old Nissan Pathfinder. She is a fully fleshed-out character, and while I know that Kelleher has since written more books from her perspective, if I didn’t, I would still have been immediately aware of Jinx’s series potential. In the very first chapters, I could see the potential for continued bounty hunting.

At first, I struggled with the cinematic nature of the book, as most of my experience with the crime genre comes from the noir or hardboiled side of things, with gritty realism taking more of a center stage. However, as I read on, I thought about it. How many cinematic trans characters can you think of? Did they get a happy ending? Was it even a positive portrayal? I certainly couldn’t think of any characters like that. The underrepresentation of the LGBT+ community in fiction is familiar discussion, but it stands repeating that the more positive representation we have, the better. I am not so naive as to believe that well written, positive portrayals of LGBT+ characters, like we find in Chaser, will end bigotry, but every little bit helps.

The book keeps you primed, eager to see the conclusion. While Jinx’s interactions with her family and friends were often my favorite parts of the book, the action scenes, acrobatic chases and lightning-fast gunfights, were always just plain fun.

“I ducked as a burst of automatic gunfire shook the air. Bullets rattled the fence and ricocheted off the back wall. I turned and saw two other guards shooting at us. I pulled off three shots at one guard, hitting him in the neck and chest. I aimed at the other and was about to pull the trigger when his head whipped back in a cloud of gore as Conor brought him down with his Bushmaster.”

Kelleher expertly weaves multiple plot threads together, yet never makes any of them feel less important than the others, which makes the book evenly enjoyable throughout. The worst part of some stories can be the pacing, with a great beginning and end held down by a sluggish middle. Not Chaser, though.

Ultimately, Dharma Kelleher’s Chaser is a fun book, which is often the best thing to ask for. It deftly foregrounds LGBT+ issues, while delivering with tension and the release of that tension in a crime novel. Well written and well paced, it’s easy to devour, and leaves you eager for the next book in the series. The ending was satisfying, and sets clear routes to sequels, that I very much look forward to reading.

Rider Barnes is a writer from Revere, Massachusetts and Associate Editor at Tough. This is his first publication.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Liars, Killers and Thieves, fiction by Nikki Dolson

The first time I stopped running was in a town named DuPont. I pulled off the highway and drove my truck right into the parking lot of a motel with a lit vacancy sign. My fake I.D. wasn’t questioned but the clerk, a white woman with turquoise-colored hair named Amanda, quizzed me: Where had I come from? Was I going to Wichita? Was I ready for fall? She didn’t wait for my answers. I paid for a week with a stack of bills I nearly fumbled all over the floor. I was shaky with exhaustion. I wasn’t sure I could stay in one place that long but I was too tired to drive another mile. I’d driven nearly non-stop after I mistakenly thought I could hideout with the masses in Austin, Texas. My new personal rule was never go to the best barbecue place in town, no matter if it is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant off an alley. You will be seen.

Amanda stood six-foot-three in barefeet. I knew this detail because she told me and also unlatched the half-door in the counter to show me her bare feet and the manicure that matched her hair. She was high on something. I watched her curl a long finger around a lock of hair and get distracted by it. I knocked on the counter between us to get her attention.

“Sorry. You’ll have the run of the place. You’re the only one staying here,” Amanda said. She tapped at her keyboard.

“Great. I don’t want to talk to people.” I was weepy at the idea of a bed, of sleeping in, of not driving.

She deflated a little. “I’m sorry I’ve just been talking and talking and talking.”

I waved her off. “It’s fine. Can I have my room key?”

“Oh, sorry.”

“Don’t apologize so much.”

“Sor-” Amanda caught herself and smiled. Her dimples were spectacular. She couldn’t have been older than twenty-one and was dewy with youth, a condition I’d only read about and had never noticed before. Tears blurred my vision. Amanda had her whole life ahead of her and I had nothing. Evidently, I was going to be weepy over everything until I got some sleep.

Amanda stretched across the counter to give me the key and she held my hand for a moment. “If I can do anything for you, you just let me know.”

I blinked away the tears that were threatening to fall. “What are you on?”

She laughed. “A little molly. Do you want? I’ll sell you some, assuming you’re not a cop.”

“No one looks at me and thinks I’m a cop.”

She looked me over. “You could be a teacher.”

“I’ve heard that before but I’m just a dead woman.” I had to stop talking. I turned to leave but she called after me, “Do you want the molly?”

“Maybe later.”

“If you need ice, don’t use the machine outside your room. I’ve worked here for two years and I’ve never seen it cleaned.”

I thanked her for the heads up and went to find my room.

The room was more than I expected. Low wattage lightbulbs in all the fixtures lit the corners of my room like candles. It had a kitchenette I wouldn’t use and an extra deep bathtub, the interior of which was scalloped like a clam’s shell. Fancy upgrades for a room with grey industrial grade carpet. I dumped my duffel on a table and sat in one of its two matching chairs to remove my boots. From the duffel I pulled out the plastic freezer bags of money and hid them in the bed’s box spring where a tear in the fabric already existed. I stripped off my clothes, cranked up the window AC unit and crawled into the bed. The sheets were cool but rough against my skin when I slid beneath them. As much as I wanted to sleep, I stayed awake listening to the night and the AC unit, waiting for the sun. As if my bad dreams might only come true in the dark.

The next afternoon, I drove over to the office for advice on where to find food. Amanda wasn’t there. In her place was Ned.

“Can I help you?” Ned didn’t get up from his chair behind the counter. From where I stood, he was only a disembodied head with hair so wispy and pale it was nearly invisible. Eyebrows were much the same. He was watching a little black and white portable television. I hadn’t seen one of those since the 90s.

I started to speak but he turned, had a good look at me in my wrinkled tank top, jeans, and flip flops. His gaze held just enough parental disapproval in it to make me regret my red bra, the straps of which were definitely showing. Ned decided I was lacking. “I’m sorry we don’t have any rooms available,” he said.

“Is that so?”

Now he stood up and I saw he was broad shouldered, barrel chested, and beer-gutted.
“You might have better luck if you drive on to Wichita.”

“Is that the best place find food?”

He frowned. “No, there’s a place a few miles north. Cassidy’s. There’s a Walmart that way too.”

“Thanks for being so helpful.”

“Get you some lunch and drive on.”


With news of a Walmart nearby, I went back to the room to pull more money from my stash. Two months on the road and I still had a little over fourteen thousand. I’d been frugal up until now. Never spending enough to be noticed. But I needed some necessities—underwear, toothpaste, deodorant, etc. and I figured all Walmarts were the same and I wouldn’t get out of there with less than a hundred dollars’ worth of nothing I really needed.

Cassidy’s was a diner in the heart of the town. There was a smattering of boarded-up store windows and closed signs along with a post office, a library, a couple schools and, of course, the Walmart, all within a block or two of each other. Cassidy’s was all fluorescent lights and 50s d├ęcor. The booth I sat in was upholstered in a red vinyl with white piping gone dingy gray in places. The tables were Formica banded in chrome. The menu was straight forward classic American—eggs, bacon, sausage, burgers, steak, and potatoes prepared in every way expected. My waitress came over and she was Amanda, lithe and lovely, in a terrible blue waitress uniform.

“Just how small is this town?” I said.

“Hi again.” Amanda was red-eyed but still so amiable I had to ask what she was on now.

“Ugh, nothing.” She exhaled and blew at the lock of blue hair that hung down over one eye. I ordered coffee but she shook her head so I asked for orange juice and one of everything off the breakfast menu.

She brought me my juice and sat down across from me. “How’d you sleep?”

“I slept enough.”

She arched a perfectly plucked eyebrow. “What does that even mean?”

“Don’t you have work to do?” I glanced around the restaurant. The current customers were all men, wearing work shirts with the name of their employers emblazoned on the back, Vulcan Chemical, Boeing, DHL, etc., and all of them looked like some version of Ned. The place was too quiet. The only noise came from the grill in the back and the clink of silverware on plates and coffee cups moving on and off the Formica countertop.

“They’re friends of my father. They don’t need or want me,” she said.

I sighed. Why fight it? I asked the question. “You don’t get along with your dad?”

“He’s old. Both my parents are. My dad hated my long hair when I was in high school but he absolutely lost it when I dyed it blonde and cut it so I could look like Marilyn Monroe. You can imagine how much he hated me in heels.”

“I bet you’re devastating in heels. What made you go that shade of blue?”

She turned her dimples on again. “I was bored.”

“You work two jobs in the town you grew up in? Not much of a life.”

“It’ll be three come the fall when all the old houses here gear up for Halloween.
We’ve made the New York Times with our annual Haunted House Mile.” She looped a curl of hair around a finger. “It’s the tourism that keeps this town alive. And no, it isn’t much of a life, but I need to save money and feed my pinup habit somehow. Besides my uncle runs the motel. It’s an easy job and he lets me work nights because no one comes in at night. No one but you.”

“Is your uncle named Ned?”

“You met him, huh? Sorry.”

“No, he’s great. Told me to drive to Wichita because there was no room at the inn.”

“Oh my god. He’s such an asshole though he probably doesn’t care that you’re black, if that helps any.”

I rolled my eyes at that last bit. “So long as he leaves me alone.”

“Hey, Adam, you going to work or what?” The cook called from behind the grill.

“Or what,” Amanda yelled back. She rolled her eyes. “He’s an asshole too but it’s a job. I’ll get your food.”

I ate my eggs and watched the men watch her. They didn’t speak to her other than to order and ask for their checks. Still she did her job and smiled. Wasted her dimples on those unworthy men. I left her a twenty for a tip. Then I headed to the Walmart.
Wednesday afternoon, two weeks before school began, meant kids in every aisle and their mothers pushing, cajoling, herding them. One or two kids riding in the carts or hanging off the sides. Older kids carrying basketballs they couldn’t bounce and skateboards they were absolutely forbidden to ride. They begged for sugary cereals in one aisle and pleaded for microwaveable whatnot in the frozen food sections. It was such saccharine sweet perfection I nearly called my own mother, but we’d only disappoint each other and there was the slight chance my father would pick up the phone and I had no desire to talk to him.

Three blocks from the Walmart, I found a bar with a bartender who was happy to take my money and even happier not to talk to me. I drank until night fell then I drank some more. I drank until my phone battery was near gone and I got to the end of the show I was binge-watching. I signaled the bartender for another round. What I got was a beer and woman who used a pair of purple painted crutches. The bartender asked her, “Can I get you a beer, Donna?”

“Yes, please.”

She sat across me and rested the crutches against the wall. “Hello, Cupcake.”

I flinched. I had to remind myself how it’s not nice to assault the elderly. I took a long drink of my beer instead of punching her.

“That’s what they call you, isn’t it?” Donna said.

“I don’t know you,” I said.

“No but our mutual friend thinks you can help me.”

“Have a nice night.” I stood to make my escape and had to grab the table for a moment. I was much too drunk for this.


That next morning, my drunken sleep was interrupted by a man I once met at a party. Louie Pluck was a killer, once upon a time. Then he turned state’s evidence and disappeared. Now he was holding out a coffee cup to me.

“Longtime, Cupcake.”

“Don’t call me that. What are you doing here, Louie?”

“WITSEC.”

“How did you find me?”

“Followed you from Walmart. I’m a cashier there.”

"How is this my life?” I leaned my forehead against the doorjamb. At this rate I was going to need to leave the country to actually get away.

“Let me in. I need you do a little something for me.”

I shut the door in his face. Opened it again, took the coffee out of his hand, and shut and locked the door again. I showered and while the lukewarm water pelted my back, I drank the coffee. It had alcohol in it which eased my hangover. I dressed to the sound of Louie’s continued gentle knocking at my door. The persistent fuck.
I went to the nightstand and removed the lampshade from the lamp. The lamp was cheap but had a heavy base. I’d get a swing or two in before it fell to pieces.

“What,” I said when I opened the door.

“We need to talk, Cupcake.”

I raised the lamp and stepped toward him

“Whoa, whoa. We talk or I talk to Vegas.”

I let him in. He surveyed my room. “Nice.”

“What do you want, Louie.”

“It’s Pete now.”

“Louie, you have to be alive to talk.”

“Nah, I have a failsafe.” He walked over to the bed as if he was going to sit on it.

“Don’t even think about it.”

He circled away from the bed and sat at the table for two in the corner of the room. I sat on the bed, put the lamp on the floor, and wished I had a knife.

“My friend, the lady you met last night, needs you to do her a favor. She’s old and sick. So is her husband. They want to die but you know, it’s hard to be brave enough to do it yourself.”

“I can’t help them.”

“You’ll help them or your boss will know where you are.”

I looked at Louie and very quietly said, “My boss is dead.”

Louie leaned in. “Fuck me. It’s true?” Then he laughed and clapped his hands once.
I picked up the lamp again.

“Relax, relax. If you do them, I won’t tell Vegas where you are. They are looking for you, you know.”

Of course, I knew it. I didn’t need this asshole telling me my own business. I put down the lamp again and exhaled a long breath. “What if I got word to the Old Men about where you are?” The Old Men were just that. Two old men living their lives in Palm Springs and oh yeah, overseeing a bunch of contract killers crisscrossing across the country on their say so.

“They aren’t looking for me anymore. Besides they might want you more. You won’t risk that.”

“What do you get out of all this?”

“A cut of the insurance payout.”

“Who gets the payout?”

“Their son.”

“Where do I find the nearly departed?”

“Well, you find people. You can find Donna and her husband.”

“This is a game to you?”

He shrugged. “I just want to see you work. You know, I remember the first time I saw you. You, in that painted on dress. Your boobs pushed up to your chin. You fucking sparkled. Simon couldn’t keep his eyes off you. None of us could. How old were you then? Twenty? Then I found out you worked for him. How did you do it? Just bat your eyelashes and whisper something dirty in their ear? Tell me.”

I’d been twenty-four years old at that party. My dress hadn’t been that tight but Simon and I had been hot for each other that night. When it was good between us, it was fire. Now Simon was dead because of me. I refused to cry in front of Louie. I cleared my throat and said, “What’s my cut?”

“A grand and you get to walk free.”

“And take any heat.”

“Eh, you have your options. Kill them before you leave town or have Vegas breathing down your neck.” He opened my door, waved, and slithered out into Kansas sunshine.

Now I know that I’m fucked. Louie obviously wanted me to dig for information in town thereby making my face known and connected to Donna. I could leave and let Louie do his worst. I’d been running for weeks so maybe getting cornered by whoever Vegas sent wouldn’t be the worst thing. Maybe I should stand my ground. Show them I wouldn’t be easy to kill. I considered doing that for about three minutes then I called Cassidy’s to talk to Amanda.

“I had a drink with a woman at a bar last night. She had purple crutches. Know her?”

“Yeah, her name is Donna Westcott. What could you two possibly talk about?”

“Nothing. We had beers. What else do you know about her?”

“She taught at the elementary school and coached the high school swim team until she had a stroke.”

“Nice person?”

“Maybe a long time ago but she’s bitter and angry now. I’d steer clear. She sucks worse than my uncle.”

I went to the front desk, prepared to face Ned again, but there was a sign up that read Be Back in Ten. I hopped the counter and spotted what I’d seen the other morning. Under the portable television were several phone books. The most recent was still twenty years old. I quickly walked back to my room lest Ned figure out I was already staying at his no vacancies motel.

I cracked open the book and went straight to the Ws. There was only one Donna Westcott. She and Michael Westcott had lived on the other side of town. Maybe they still did. I looked up homes for sale in town. Wrote down a few addresses for cover and headed out. The Westcotts were out for a stroll when I drove past their home. Michael was using a walker. Donna set the pace, her purple crutches had glitter in the finish and they shimmered in the sun. As I went past them I could hear her saying,

“Come on. I don’t want to be out here all day.”

My reward for finding them was to soak in that big tub. I fell asleep and woke up in cold water. It was dark out and I figured Amanda would be on shift. I had an urge to check on her and see how her day had gone. I dressed, grabbed my ice bucket and walked back down to the office. She was there. Turquoise hair falling in a cascade of curls over one shoulder. She jumped when I walked in.

“Hey there. I’m in need of ice.”

“Sure.” The smile she gave me was a little brittle but I thought about her at the diner.

The way they shunned her. I’d be a little brittle too. She took the bucket from me and went into the manager’s office. I could hear ice trays cracking. When she came out, she seemed okay. I took the bucket from her. “You should get out of town. Go to New York. Chicago. Anywhere but here,” I said.

“Haven’t saved enough yet but when I go, I’m headed to California. I want to put my toes into the Pacific.”

“Good ocean. How much money do you need?”

She shrugged. “A few thousand more, I think. Enough so I have time to see things and not worry. Maybe drive the PCH. Live out my Marilyn Monroe in Hollywood dreams.”
“Have you ever seen Gilda?” She shook her head. “Watch it. That hair with your face—Rita Hayworth all the way.”

Amanda blushed. “Are you drinking alone?”

“I always drink alone.”

“Well that’s sad. We can have a couple of drinks together.”

There were the dimples again. Maybe she was hoping I could give the money she needed to leave town. Maybe she was a lonely as I was. “Come over for drinks,” I said.
When Amanda knocked in my door two hours later, I was half gone on cheap wine. She brought whiskey and molly. “Not polite to show up to someone’s place without a gift.”

“You’re wonderful,” I said.

She handed me a pill. “Want one?”

“Hell yes.”

Blissed out and feeling no pain, we watched movies. Everything I could order on the motel’s cable service. We watched Laura and a documentary about a jewel thief named Doris Payne and, of course, we watched Gilda.

“Is this movie even about Gilda? Ballin and Johnny are fighting their obvious love for one another,” Amanda said. We discussed every part. She rewound and fast-forwarded the movie to prove her points. It was a great night.

I woke up dry-mouthed but happy. It was nearly noon. Amanda groaned as I sat up. “Did we drink everything?”

“Yes, but I’m pretty sure it was the molly that fucked us up so thoroughly.”

She giggled as she stumbled off to the bathroom. I decided to put my face back into the pillow. When I woke again, she was long gone.

Should I stay or should I go? The Clash song started up in my head, which was cruel not only because of the hangover but because it had been Simon’s favorite song and it did not help me one iota. Why did I care? Killing people was not new to me. I could do the Westcotts and be on my way before anyone noticed. I called the number listed in the phone book. A quavering voice said hello.

“Hello, Donna?”

“Yes.” Her voice got a little stronger.

“It’s Cupcake. Our mutual friend talked to me. Is this what you want?”

“Y-yes. It’s hard these days.”

“You both want this?”

“There’s no life without each other.” Her voice was so soft. A little pained.
I thought of my one and only and the running I was doing and the loneliness I couldn’t escape. Suddenly the idea of bringing peace to someone seemed all important.

“I’ll see you soon. Don’t be afraid,” I said.

My next call was to Louie. “I need a gun.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“To do what you asked, I need a gun.”

“Hold on.” He muted the call and I waited. He was whispering when he got back on the phone. “I’m at work and people are probably listening.”

“Unlikely.”

“Hey, I’m still important.”

“Sure you are but if you really thought anyone was watching or listening, you’d never have gotten involved in this.”

He sighed. “Why do you need a gun? They’re seventy-year-old sick people. You can’t take them?”

“You need an insurance payout. It can’t look like a suicide and I’m not interested in bludgeoning them to death so, a gun. Preferably a Beretta.”

“Jesus. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Bring it tonight or I’m gone.”

Half past eight, Louie was at my door with an attitude, a .38 snub-nosed revolver, a handful of bullets, and five hundred dollars. “You’ll get the other half after.”

“This isn’t a Beretta.”

“Best I could do on short notice. Let me guess, you wanted a silencer too?”

I shook my head. “I’m sure they have pillows.”

I changed out of my flipflops and into boots. I grabbed my gloves, parked in town and walked to the Westcotts. I skulked past homes where people were eating their late dinners or still fighting with their kids to take baths or go to bed. The wails of children denied their last half hour of television could be heard. I was glad it was dark enough. That the streets weren’t well-lit. That if anyone glanced out their kitchen window while doing the dishes, I would’ve been nothing more than a shadow. Maybe they’d think they saw someone. Maybe they’d mention it to their spouse, but I’d already be gone and if they heard something like a gunshot later it was still early enough that they could blame it on the television, theirs or the neighbor’s, being turned up too loud. It was the perfect time to shoot someone.
The Westscotts’s tiny home with the unmown lawn had its dying porch light on. I unscrewed it to stop its flickering and plunged the porch back into the darkness of the night. I knocked on the door. I could hear their television on. I knocked again. The television noises stopped.

“Who is it?” Michael Westcott wanted to know.

“I’m Pete’s friend.”

“And?”

I had to smile. He probably challenged everyone, no matter the hour. “I spoke to Donna. She knew I was coming to visit.”

The door opened to the limits of the chain. One blue eye squinted down at me. “Why is it so dark,” he asked.

“I guess your light went out.”

“It’s a little late for a visit, don’t you think?”

“Donna didn’t tell you I was coming?”

“No.”

“Okay. Sorry to bother.” I turned to go.

“Wait. You said you were a friend of Pete’s?”

“Let her in.” Donna called from depths of the house.

He grumbled and the closed the door. I heard the chain coming off and he let me in. Michael Westcott was much taller than me but looked so small bent over in his flannel pajamas.

“I’ll close the door. Go sit,” I said.

More grumbling but he walked slowly over to the end of the couch, sat down and exhaled loudly with the effort. I locked the door and turned off the lights.

“Hey,” Michael said. I pulled the gun from my waistband and walked over to him. I put the muzzle against his head. He was shaking. “Oh, Jesus. Oh, god,” he said.


I hesitated and the barrel of the gun dipped. I wondered about Donna. Michael didn’t seem to know about the plan. Maybe he had dementia. Then he said, “I thought I wouldn’t be afraid. It’s foolish to have been fighting death all this time, letting doctors cut on me a dozen times for a dozen reasons, and now I’m afraid the one time I chose death.” His hand reached up and touched my own. His fingers gently lifted my gloved hand back into position. “I want this. Please, don’t you be afraid too.”

My other hand came up to cover his and together we held the gun. I pulled the trigger. The sound was loud but not too loud. Easily mistaken for his TV show. I lifted his hand from mine and set it carefully on his lap then went to look for Donna.

I turned off lights as I went from room to room. Even the bathroom light was on. I flicked the switch. Hallway light off. Flick. Small bedroom, the son’s old room. Flick. The master bedroom’s door was ajar. I nudged it with my shoe. A bullet went through the door and whizzed past my head, just barely clipping my ear. I hit the floor hard.

“Shit,” Donna said.

“Donna? I’m here just like you asked me to be.”

I only heard the sound of the television. I stayed on my knees and pushed the door
open quickly. I found her and shot her. She was in the corner of the room, in the blind spot. I stepped over to her. She wasn’t dead yet but her breath was ragged.

“Why, Donna? I thought this was what you wanted. If you changed your mind you’ve could’ve said so. You could’ve sent me away.”

“I didn’t want to take care of him anymore.” She coughed.

“You could’ve left.”

“And leave him like that? Besides I didn’t have enough money.” Her eyes rolled up to look at me.

“How does Pete figure into this?”

“He said he’d help. Then he said you would do it but I had to kill you. Make it look like,” a wrenching cough took her words. She coughed again and again and again then she stopped for good.

“Make it look like a robbery or something,” I finished for her. The gun was still in her hand. Of course, she had a Beretta.

I needed to go. Someone definitely heard our gunshots. I checked my ear in the bathroom mirror. It bled a little but nothing that needed a bandage. I turned to leave but something was wrong. I had to figure out what I’d missed. I turned back on lights until I knew. In the son’s room, a shelf of first and second places trophies. All won by Adam Westcott.


The next morning, I was at Walmart buying a couple of bottles of rubbing alcohol and a chef’s knife. I waved at Louie. He frowned but continued to ring up the customer in front of him. I was there to follow him home when he left work early that day.

Outside of his rented duplex, I grabbed my purchases and shoved the Beretta into the waistband of my jeans. I knocked at his door. When it began to open, I threw my body at the door and it bounced off his face. I went in after him.

“I’m sorry, Cupcake. I’m sorry,” he said as he scrambled across the floor reaching for the couch.

I put the Beretta against his skull. He froze. “I told you not to call me that. No one calls me that except Frank and Frank wants me dead. Now get up. Do you have duct tape?”

“Why?”

“Because if you don’t have duct tape, I’m going to have to use extension cord and that will hurt.”

Blood ran from his nose to his lips. He wiped at it and eyed my gun. “Kitchen drawer. Second from the end.”

“Perfect. Now go sit.” I ushered him away from the couch and the gun I figured was hidden there. “I just want to talk. I know you think you can take me but I will shoot you in the stomach and both knees. That way even if you get a hospital in time to fix the hole in your belly, you’ll never walk the same.” He sat in a kitchen chair and put his hands behind his back. I rolled the tape around his wrists and up his arms. More tape went around his chest. I kept adding tape until the roll ran out.

I grabbed a handful of paper towels from the roll over his sink. I pulled a chair over and sat so our knees touched. “You set me up,” I said.

“No, I didn’t. I would never.”

I wiped at his nose and lips so he wouldn’t spit blood at me. “How much does Vegas say I’m worth?”

“It’s not like that,” he said. I put the barrel of the gun against his right eye. “Twenty-five thousand. More if I bring you to them alive.”

I removed the gun from his eye. “And how much will you get from the insurance?”

“The same.”

“You thought you could get paid twice for me.”

“You blame me? You just showed up. It was serendipity. How could I not try?”

“You didn’t even have the balls to take me out yourself.”

Louie struggled against the tape. “Why the hell did you even come here?”

“Does it matter now? Tell me how Amanda figures into this.”

“Are they dead?”

“Yes. Not before Donna got off a shot at me though. Tell me about Amanda.”

“Nothing to tell.”

I raised the gun again. “You said that the son gets the payout and I know Amanda used to be Adam.”

He sighed. “Look, Donna came to me. She said she was exhausted taking care of her husband and trying to keep herself going. There wasn’t enough money to go around.”

“So you offered to help, for a small fee.”

 “Walmart doesn’t pay much.”

“And Amanda?”

“I told her what Donna asked me to do. Told her that if we did it right, she’d get the full payout. She didn’t really like it but she came around eventually. Then I told her I had someone who could do it and we’d never be suspected.”

 “You made sure you were going to get paid, no matter what happened, didn’t you? Do you even care about Amanda?”

He made a face. I got up and turned on his television and found a game show rerun on cable. I turned it up loud.

“You really should have stayed a cashier. Did you think I would let you live after you threatened to tell Vegas where I was?”

“I still have a failsafe. I go missing and- “

“And Amanda won’t have to pay you anything. She won’t cry over you for long.”

I grabbed the bottles of rubbing alcohol and dumped them over his head. He screamed. He screamed louder when I set him on fire. I let him panic for thirty seconds then I shot him in the face. Frank, the man who taught me how to kill, would approve. I tossed the paper towels into the flames. They rolled off and fell next to the wall. I pulled the revolver from the grocery bag and left it with the Beretta on the kitchen counter. The empty alcohol bottles went in the bag with the knife. The wallpaper was just beginning to burn when I left.


Louie got me thinking about Amanda’s access to my room and her desire to live out her Marilyn Monroe dreams. I checked for my money, knowing it was probably gone.
Knowing I’d have to come after her now. I packed my duffel and wiped down the room. After six, I called the desk and lo and behold, Amanda was there.

“Hey, come have a drink with me. I’m leaving. I’ve been killing time in this town for too long,” I said. I slipped the knife into the top drawer of the dresser.

Amanda showed up with ice. Her hair up in a ponytail and black heels on her feet. Her smile was pressed on. “Thought we might need some. We have to toast goodbye.”

“Absolutely.” I poured the last of the whiskey into plastic cups and handed her one.

“To new friends,” she said.

I hopped on to of the dresser and raised my cup. “To liars, killers, and thieves.” We looked at each other.

“That’s an odd toast.”

“Is it? Liars, Louie and you. Killers, me. Thieves, also you.”

She sat down hard in a chair. “I’m sorry.”

“What did I tell you about that? Drink your whiskey.”

“How did you figure it out?”

“Your old bedroom is still intact. I saw Adam’s swimming trophies.”

She closed her eyes. “They were proud of those trophies. I left home to live a life they didn’t agree with and we stopped talking. Then Mom had the stroke and Dad had the surgeries and he was never the same. Was I supposed to give up my life and take care of them? I barely have a life and I had to dedicate it to them and stay in this miserable town?” She was crying now.

“Hey, don’t waste the alcohol.”

She wiped her face and drank her alcohol down and I drank mine.

“You and Louie were fucking?”

She frowned. “Wait, who’s Louie?”

“Pete. Pete is Louie. He was sent to do a job for some people then he talked about them to save his own ass and the government hid him away in this town. Were you going to take the money and leave with him?”

She nodded. “I didn’t know he got you to do it and then he told me, and I didn’t know what to do.”

“You didn’t know he was setting me up?”

“God, no. I swear.”

I set my cup down on the dresser top and pulled the knife from the drawer. “But you searched my room, didn’t you?”

“I search every room. Sometimes I find things.”

I got down off the dresser and approached her, the knife moving back and forth as I walked. I always loved the weight of a knife in my hand. Frank always wanted me to have a gun but give me a knife any day and I will be a happy woman. Unlike Amanda. She didn’t look happy. She was shaking now. “You found my money, but you didn’t leave. You really should’ve left. Where is my money, Amanda?”

“In the room next door.”

“Go get it.”

I followed Amanda outside. She wiped her hands on her jeans and pulled the key from her pocket and tried to open the door but her hands were shaking.
I put my hand on her back and she flinched. “Breathe.” She exhaled a long breath and the key slid into the lock and she pushed open the door. The money was in closet, still in the freezer bags I brought it in. She sat on the bed. “Is it all here?”

She nodded.

“I should kill you.” She started to cry again. I sighed. “Save it. Do you talk to your parents at all?” She shook her head. “What did you do last night.”

“Bowling with some friends in Wichita.”

“Good. When your parents’ bodies are discovered, collect your insurance money, wait a bit, then leave this town.” I got in her face. “Never speak of me to anyone. If you do, I swear I’ll find you.”

She sniffled and nodded.

“Good. Get out. Neither one of us should stay in this town a moment longer than we have to.”

I loaded the truck with my belongings and drove out of town. Maybe I’d drive to Canada or Alaska. Somewhere far enough away that my guilt might fade a little. I knew there was no outrunning guilt, but I still wanted to try. I was glad to be back in the truck. Back on the road. Back to watching for lights in my rearview mirror.


Nikki Dolson is the author of *All Things Violent* (Fahrenheit Press) and her collection of short stories, *Love & Other Criminal Behavior*, is forthcoming from Bronzeville Books.

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.

Young.

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.

Faster.

###



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.