Monday, April 20, 2020

Dirty Laundry, fiction by Michael Bracken

Julia Calloway Poe sat at a table outside Starbucks and stared at her cellphone, much like the coffee drinkers occupying the surrounding tables. Her shoulder-length auburn hair had that just-rolled-out-of-bed look that takes hours to get just right, and lightly applied make-up failed to mask the spray of freckles beneath her emerald green eyes. Over an hour-glass figure she wore a form-fitting black-and-white striped T-shirt, fashionably torn jeans purchased at some chic boutique, and black platform pumps. Except for the nervous tic in her left eye, she could have been any one of the hundreds of interchangeable Baylor graduates gentrifying Waco.

I dropped into the empty seat opposite her. When Julia looked up, I handed her one of my business cards. Neatly thermographed on the front were my name—Morris Ronald Boyette—and my contact information. She glanced at the card before tucking it under the corner of her venti cup and turning her cellphone face down. “You’re late.”

Magnoliatards—out-of-towers flooding Waco as a result of a popular television program about Waco-based home renovators—had bottlenecked traffic downtown, and as I’d left my office, I’d nearly run down a young couple who thought traffic lights and crosswalks were suggestions. The resulting exchange of hand gestures had delayed me significantly, and I wasn’t in the mood to play. “If you’ve somewhere more important to be,” I said, “then why are you still here?”

Julia stiffened and her eyes narrowed as she examined my face. She flicked the corner of my business card with the tip of one blood-red fingernail. After several seconds, she expelled her breath and said, “Fine. We’ll do this your way.”

She reached into her purse, removed a check already folded in half, and slid it across the table. I disappeared it into my jacket pocket.

“Aren’t you going to look at it?”

The check was either sufficiently large, or it wasn’t. I said, “Schrödinger’s cat.”

She nodded. I was surprised she caught the reference.

Before I could ask how she wanted me to earn the money, Julia said, “My brother and his wife were murdered in El Paso.”

“And you want me to find their killer?”

“No, the police have already arrested someone,” she said. “This is about my niece.”

Waco has its share of quiet coffee shops in gentrifying neighborhoods, but my client had chosen the Starbucks at the intersection of Bosque Boulevard and Wooded Acres Drive—busy, multi-lane thoroughfares lined with fast-food joints and big box stores. The traffic lights changed several times while I waited for her to continue.

“Caroline is four,” Julia finally said.

“Where is she now?”

“With her grandparents—her mother’s parents—and I haven’t been allowed to see her.”

I asked a few questions. Julia provided a few answers. Her older brother Austin had been the first to attend Baylor, had graduated the same semester she completed her freshman year, and had immediately found employment with a local bank. He married the bank president’s daughter the following year. Whether through hard work or familial connections, Austin rose quickly through the ranks to vice president of commercial lending, and his clients had been instrumental in transforming downtown Waco from a ghost town into a tourist destination. His wife Holly, who had never worked at a paying job, was active on the boards of several charitable organizations.

Julia, on the other hand, remained single despite her brother’s best efforts. She supported herself as a librarian in Hewitt, a small community that shared a common border with Waco, and she supplemented her income with a modest monthly check from the trust fund her parents established before their deaths.

Reciting her family history loosened Julia’s tongue, but didn’t explain why her dead brother’s in-laws wouldn’t let her see her niece. When she paused long enough to sip from her venti cup, I asked.

“They want to adopt Caroline,” she said. “They already have some high-priced attorney working on it.”


“David and Donna Exter.”

David Alexrod Exter IV was the most recent Exter to serve as president of Huaco Bank & Trust, founded by his family in the late 1800s to serve the financial needs of the cotton plantations that fueled the area’s earliest economic boom. Unlike competitors, they had never opened branches in the suburbs, relying on old money and business accounts rather than chasing paycheck-to-paycheck working-family accounts.

“They’re living in high cotton,” I said. “They should be able to care for all her needs.”

“I’m sure they can,” Julia said, “but that’s no reason to cut me out of Caroline’s life.”

“What do you think I can do for you that a good family law attorney can’t?”

“I think I would be a better parent for my niece, but I haven’t the money to fight the
Exters in court—if I could find an attorney willing to do battle with them. For now, I just need leverage. I need something I can hold over their heads so they won’t cut me completely out of Caroline’s life.” Julia reached across the table, rested her hand on my wrist, and stared into my eyes. “Find me that something.”

With most any other woman, I would have thought her touch was a veiled come-on, but a careful examination of the look in her eyes revealed that it was an appeal to my masculine desire to ride a white horse to the rescue of a damsel in distress. She offered nothing in return but her deep appreciation and, I hoped, a check that would clear the bank.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“That’s all I ask.”

She drew back her hand, collected my business card and her phone from the table, and opened her purse to store them away. When she did, I glimpsed the grip of a .25 ACP Baby Browning Pistol.

“Do you know how to use that?”

“My brother gave it to me,” she said, not quite answering my question.


“She was packing heat?” Millie asked. Millard Wayne Trout—“Millie” because his family still called his grandfather “Millard”—operated Millie’s Tattoos and Piercings, and with every part of his body but his face and his hands covered with tattoos, served as his own walking billboard. We were sitting in his place eating Lip Locker double-meat cheeseburgers and Oriental fries from Kitok while Alice Frizell, a wisp of a tattoo artist he’d hired several years earlier, etched a starburst around the belly button of a college-age blonde.

My office was in the room behind Millie’s. Across the hall from Millie’s, in front of an empty office that had once housed a finance company too legitimate for the neighborhood, was Big Mac’s Bail Bonds. All of us had been given sixty days to relocate before our building was demolished to make room for new construction, a project financed by Huaco Bank & Trust.

“Remind me again why a librarian needs a handgun.”

“Said her brother insisted.”

Millie grunted around a mouthful of cheeseburger and listened as I told him why Julia Calloway Poe had hired me. When I finished, he said, “She wants you to get something on the Exters. What does she think you’ll find?”

I had no idea, but I had sorted through enough metaphorical hampers over the years to know that everybody had dirty laundry. Finding out just how much and just how dirty the Exters’ laundry was would keep me occupied until my client’s advance ran out. “I thought I would pay a visit to the house first, see if I can catch a glimpse of the little girl at the center of this mess.”


I waited until banker’s hours the next day, when I was certain David Exter would be in his office and his wife would be home with their granddaughter. Only she wasn’t. I knocked on the door of their Tudor Revival on Austin Avenue and soon found myself facing a diminutive Hispanic woman in black slacks and crisp white blouse who explained that the lady of the house was away.

“Will she be home soon?”

“She didn’t say.”

I folded a hundred-dollar bill around my business card and held it out to her. “Will you call me when she returns?”

She hesitated a moment and then made the money and my card disappear into one of her pockets. “Don’t hold your breath. Mrs. Exter packed several suitcases and took the Escalade. Mr. Cheese drove.”

“Where would she—?”

I didn’t finish my question because the door closed in my face was unlikely to answer.


I headed downtown and parked on the street in front of Big Mac’s Bail Bonds. Lester motioned to me through the plate-glass window, so I joined him inside. He had taken over the business decades years earlier when a disgruntled client emptied a shotgun in Macdonald Pearson’s face, and he was looking worse for wear every time I saw him.

As soon as I stepped through the door, Lester showed me an eviction letter that duplicated the one I’d received a few days earlier. “I’m too old for this shit,” he said. “Quimby’s made an offer, so I’m selling out at the end of the month. I’m not writing any new bonds, and Quimby has his own muscle, so—”

Lester let the sentence hang, but I knew how it ended. He wouldn’t have any more work for me, and we both knew there were lean months where the only thing that kept me in business was collecting one of his bail-jumping clients.

I thanked him, shook his hand, and wished him good luck in retirement.

As I stepped out of the side door into the hallway that led back to my office, he offered, “If there’s ever anything you need.”

I stopped and turned back. “You ever do any work for the Exter family?”

He snorted. “Family like that don’t need a bail bondsman. Any problem they ever had they could pay their way out of.”

“You ever heard anything?”

“Only what I read in the paper.”

Waco only had the one—and it was shrinking—so Lester read the same paper I read.

“Of course,” he continued, pausing a moment as if considering whether to share the thought that crossed his mind. “I know a guy was fresh out of the academy when he stopped Mrs. Exter about three a.m. She’d been driving down the middle of Austin Avenue, weaving from curb to curb. He was planning to issue a DWI when she blew a one-point-six—that’s a class A misdemeanor—but he was talked out of it when a commander happened by. The next morning he found an envelope stuffed with hundreds slipped under his apartment door. He works private security now."


Later that afternoon, David Exter pushed open my office door, stepped inside, and flipped one of my business cards onto my desk. I didn’t get up.

“Maria gave me your card.” Exter wore a bespoke blue pinstripe suit over a red silk tie and a crisp white shirt. Silver threaded his hair at the temples. The only thing out of place was him in my office. “She said you stopped by the house and asked about my wife.”

“I did.”

“What did you want to see her about?”

“Actually, I was looking for your granddaughter.”

Exter’s gaze traveled around my office before once again settling on me. There was barely enough room for me and him and his appraising gaze. “Julia hire you?”
I didn’t respond, but I didn’t need to.

“She’s a fine young woman,” Exter said, “but she has no idea what she’s getting herself into.”

“Julia just wants to see her niece.”

“She’s better off not,” he said. “She can’t take care of the girl.”

“How hard can it be?” I meant it as a rhetorical question, but I really had no idea. My wife had disappeared with my son when he was near Caroline’s age.

Exter reached into his jacket and removed a leather breast-pocket wallet. As he opened it and began removing crisp one-hundred-dollar bills, he asked, “How much will it take to convince you to stop whatever foolishness Julia’s hired you for?”

My client’s retainer check had done little more than make my house payment and pay for the Lip Lockers and Oriental fries I’d shared with Millie the previous day. So, enough for a security deposit and first- and last-month’s rent on a new office would certainly tempt me. I pushed back my chair and stood. “I’d rather you leave.”
Exter slid the crisp bills back into his wallet and drew out a hundred-dollar bill that had been creased twice shortways. When he dropped it next to my business card, I remembered where I had last seen it. He said, “Don’t expect any calls from Maria. ICE picked her up an hour ago.”

With that, the banker vacated my office. I followed as far as the hall—a distance of three steps—and watched as he strode down the hall. Millie stepped out of his tattoo shop, saw Exter’s back as the outside door swung shut, and he turned to me. “What did he want?”

“To buy me off,” I said, “or to threaten me.”


I caught my client coming out of the Hewitt Public Library at the end of her workday. She wore a loose-fitting beige blouse, coffee-colored straight-leg slacks, and matching-colored flats, all of which masked the hourglass figure on display when we’d first met. Her hair, pulled back in a simple ponytail, completed the look. Even though I had not called ahead, she did not seem surprised to see me. She seemed hopeful. I was leaning against my car, and Julia stopped a few feet from me. “You have something already?”

“Mrs. Exter has taken your niece out of town, and Mr. Exter has suggested I cease my inquiries.”

The hopeful expression slid from her face. “I expected as much. The two attorneys I tried to hire returned my retainer after speaking with him. They claimed conflict of interest.” She held out her hand. “You here to return yours?”

“I can’t,” I told her. “I already spent it.”

She lowered her hand.

“Is there someplace we can talk?”

She rented a one-bedroom flat in the Brookside Apartments just off of Hewitt Drive, only a few miles from the library, and I followed her there. Once inside, she poured tall glasses of peach tea while I circumnavigated the kitchen/dining/living room. The room was sparsely but tastefully furnished, and a digital picture frame graced one end table, the photographs changing every ten seconds. After Julia handed me one of the tea glasses, she stood next to me and identified her parents, herself and her brother as children, her brother and his wife, and her niece. She had no photos of the Exters, but I hadn’t expected any.

My client paused the rotation and tapped a finger against the photograph on the screen. Her brother and sister-in-law were holding Caroline, but Austin was not looking at the camera. His attention was focused on something or someone over the left shoulder of the photographer.

“I took this the weekend before they went to El Paso.”

“Looks like your brother was preoccupied.”

“I think he was in over his head.”

I turned to Julia. “Excuse me?”

“Austin told me he didn’t want to go.” She restarted the photograph rotation. “He said his father-in-law insisted.”

“What was he supposed to do there?”

“Meet with one of the bank’s clients.”

“In El Paso? Why would someone from El Paso bank in Waco?”

Julia shrugged.

“Is this the same conversation where your brother gave you the gun?”

“No,” she said. “He did that a year ago, about the same time he stopped introducing me to his unmarried business associates. He said he wasn’t a good judge of character and that I would be better off finding my own dates.”

“And are you?”

“I’m still single, Mr. Boyette, so what do you think?”

I had no appropriate response, so I sipped from my tea glass.


I hadn’t bothered to ask about the murder of Austin and Holly Exter because Julia had not hired me to look into the circumstances of their death, but on the drive back to my office I became curious. Once seated at my Macintosh, I did a quick internet search and found several articles about their murder, none of the information of much value. According to local news media, Austin and Holly’s deaths were the result of a robbery gone wrong, and the Mexican national El Paso police arrested had her wedding ring set and his Rolex watch in his pocket. I’d worked enough cases over the years to know the police had held something back, but I had never worked a case in El Paso and knew no one there.

I made a few calls and found a former client who owed me a favor who was in turn owed a favor by a homicide detective in El Paso. Within an hour I received a call from a gravel-voice detective who established his bona fides without revealing his name or rank.

After some initial back-and-forth, he said, “We’re certain it’s a professional hit, but we can’t shake this guy’s story. He’s taking the fall, so there must be something in it for him.”

“Like what?”

“He has a wife and a daughter and stage-three lung cancer. He gets convicted, he’ll be dead before we ever strap him into the chair.”

“And his family?”

“Wouldn’t be surprised if their standard of living doesn’t improve significantly.”


He didn’t answer directly. He said, “The dead guy’s a banker. Follow the money.”


Following the money led back to Huaco Bank & Trust and the Exter family. Had the Exter family continued living in high cotton thanks to an influx of cartel cash? If so, what message had been sent by killing the bank president’s daughter and son-in-law? Before I could answer my own questions, I heard, “Moe Ron?”

I looked up and saw Millie standing in the open doorway.

“You’re here late,” I said.

“Had a guy visit me this afternoon,” he said. “Said they aren’t waiting to start the demolition. The wrecking crew starts work next Monday.”

“You found a place yet?”

“Looking at a building over on Washington Avenue.” Instead of replacing the old buildings, like the developer was planning to do with ours, the buildings on Washington Avenue were being renovated. “You?”

“I haven’t had time.” I’d had time, I just hadn’t used it. “This case is taking all my attention.”

“Think they’re pushing up the demolition date because of you?” Millie asked.
Knowing whose bank was financing the project, I had no reason to doubt it.


I was uncertain about my next step, so I spent the following morning moving files from my office to my second bedroom for storage until I found a new place. I was back at the office packing a second carload when I received an unexpected phone call.

I had not spoken to Elroy Johnson in years, and he did not introduce himself, but I recognized his voice. “I heard you been asking questions about an incident in El Paso.”

“A few.”

Texas is a big state, made smaller by men like Elroy Johnson. With loose connections to Families in Kansas City, St. Louis, and New Orleans they laundered money, brokered deals with the Mexican Mafia, and shared news of important events across the state. I’d known Elroy since childhood when I’d played high school football with his nephew, and when I was younger our paths crossed more often than I cared to admit. He asked, “What’s it to you?”

“A little girl lost both her parents.” I told him about Caroline Poe Exter and why her aunt Julia had hired me.

“The mother was an accident,” Johnson said. “She wasn’t supposed to be with him.”

“Did he know what he was walking into?”

“Exter knew.”

“You’re saying his father-in-law set him up?”

“There’s a quarter million unaccounted for,” Johnson said. “Someone had to pay.”

I had stepped ass deep into Exter’s dirty laundry and it turned out to be laundered money.

“The Exters have a place on the shores of Lake Palestine,” Johnson continued. “She took the little girl there. She has a bodyguard, an ex-cop, so go prepared.”

“How do you know?”

“Information is my business,” Johnson said. “Make sure the little girl is safe and then get out of the way.”

After ending the conversation, I walked down the hall to talk to Lester Beeson. He was cleaning out his files, and three plastic trash bags were awaiting a trip to the dumpster out back.

“The ex-cop you mentioned the other day,” I said, “what was his name?”

“Cheesebrough,” he said. “Carter Cheesebrough.”

Mr. Cheese.

I crossed the hall to the tattoo parlor and told Millie I needed his help.

When we left late that afternoon for the two-and-a-half hour drive to Lake Palestine, Millie left the tattoo parlor in Alice Frizell’s hands. I rode shotgun in Millie’s 1965 Mustang, a car he’d rescued from a junkyard and restored during his limited free time.

Millie parked a quarter mile from the Exters’ lake house and made his way through the tall pines to the rear of the property. I walked up the winding drive, making no effort to mask my approach. I’d barely reached the top step of the veranda when the front door opened. A man built like a Frigidaire stepped out and said, “Who are you, and what do you want?”

I glanced at the Sig Sauer held in his right hand. “You must be Cheesebrough.”

He raised the pistol. “What do you want?”

“To talk to Mrs. Exter,” I said. “To lay eyes on her granddaughter.”

“And you are?”

“Your replacement.”

I had no idea how Millie made it through the house so quickly, but he clocked the bodyguard with a punch to the back of his head, and the unconscious man collapsed to the floor. We tied him to one of the dining room chairs and found Donna Exter and Caroline Exter Poe hiding in the master bedroom’s walk-in closet.

Mrs. Exter filled out a Ralph Lauren denim shirt and a pair of dark-wash jeans with a shapely figure that had softened with age. Her golden blond bob had been expertly highlighted, and she had accented her deceptively casual appearance with diamond stud earrings, a Breitling watch, and a diamond solitaire engagement ring worth more than my car. Beside her, Caroline wore OshKosh denim overalls over a pink T-shirt and pink running shoes, static electricity causing her shoulder-length flyaway blond hair to stick to everything around her.

As Mrs. Exter pushed her granddaughter behind her, she stared over my shoulder at the Illustrated Man that was Millie. Every part of his body I had ever seen, except his face and his palms, was covered with tattoos that frightened genteel society.

She said, “Do what you want with me but leave Caroline alone.”

“Collect whatever you think you need,” I told her. “You’re going home.”

While she gathered a few things, I made a call. Someone Elroy Johnson knew would release Cheesebrough from his bonds a few hours after we drove away, and within twenty minutes, I was behind the wheel of Mrs. Exter’s Escalade, with her in the passenger seat and Caroline in her car seat in back. Millie followed in his Mustang.
On the return trip to Waco, I told Mrs. Exter what I had learned about her husband’s business activities and the reason her daughter and son-in-law had been murdered in El Paso. She listened, asked no questions, and after I finished rode the rest of the way in silence.

I was half an hour from Waco when I called Julia to tell her I had located her niece, that Exter had been responsible for her brother’s death, and that she need to meet us at the Exters’ home if she wanted to see Caroline. When we arrived, we found Julia standing in the Exters’ living room, one hand tightly gripping her .25 ACP Baby Browning Pistol as she pointed it between David Alexrod Exter IV’s steel-gray eyes.
He sat in an overstuffed chair, wearing a blue pin-striped suit, the knot of his red tie pulled askew, and the top button of his rumpled white shirt unfastened. He had aged since his visit to my office. She wore jeans and a loose-fitting white T-shirt and, without make-up and her hair askew, and looked younger than her years. The nervous tic in her left eye had returned.

“You don’t want to do this,” I said.

“He killed my brother.”

“He didn’t—”

“He didn’t pull the trigger,” she said, “but he might as well have.”

“You do this and you’ll never see your niece again.”

Millie, Mrs. Exter, and Caroline stood behind me. Mrs. Exter stepped around Millie and addressed her husband. “Is it true, what they told me? Did Austin die because you’ve been laundering drug money for the cartels? Because you skimmed some of it?”

Without taking his attention from the pistol in Julia’s hands, he nodded.

“And Holly?”

“Holly wasn’t supposed to be with him,” he said. “She was collateral damage.”

“Collateral damage?” Mrs. Exter’s voice rose. “She was my daughter!”

Exter said nothing.

“Give me that.” Mrs. Exter reached out and took the pistol from Julia’s hand. “Now go. Take Caroline and go.”

Millie and I hustled Julia and Caroline out through the front door. I had just opened the passenger door of Millie’s Mustang when I heard the first shot. Five more shots followed.

Schrödinger’s cat. As long as I didn’t look back, Exter was both alive and dead, and I wasn’t certain it mattered either way.


I learned later that Donna Exter hadn’t killed her husband, but six shots from Julia’s little handgun perforated him in ways from which he could never recover. Exter spends his days drooling on himself, thinking thoughts no one will ever know, while his wife spends her days incarcerated in the William P. Hobby Unit in Marlin.

A significant amount of money shifted from Huaco Bank & Trust to offshore accounts before the Feds swooped in and took control. Elroy Johnson ensured that some of it made its way back to Caroline and Julia in the form of a trust fund, and Julia left her position with the Hewitt Public Library to raise her niece.

Lester sold his business to Quimby and retired. Millie bought a two-story building on Washington Avenue for his tattoo parlor, and I rent the upstairs from him.

Business is slow.

Michael Bracken has written several books, including the private eye novel All White Girls, and more than 1,300 short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories, and in many other anthologies and periodicals. “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” his previous Morris Ronald Boyette story for Tough, was named one of the Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2018 by the editors of The Best American Mystery Stories. He lives, writes, and edits in Texas.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Chaser, by Dharma Kelleher, reviewed by Rider Barnes

Dharma Kelleher
310 pages
Pariah Press

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 décor. 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?”


“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.”


“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.”


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?”


“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?”


“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.