Monday, May 11, 2020

Against the Grain, fiction by Rob McClure Smith

Turning off Route 41, I need to flick the visor down to block a big orange sun like a severed head. Sparse woods run down a slope from the road where washboard gravel slants. I unlock the metal gate and gaze across gray flat fields at a sea of white turbines. The great three-sail steel and fiberglass machines turn slow that indolent way they do, generators humming like beehives. I listen a while to the wind slice the metal till the scraping makes my teeth hurt. The wind is clean till it enters the blades, then it's dirty. I drive on up the ridge past a burnt-up wheel-less trailer, an upright piano filled with rainwater, a couple of boats sunk in a mud field moored against a dead oak. Beyond this desolation, two black horses are sniffing each another’s butts with grim intensity beside my very favorite grain bin. Parked catty-corner is an ancient green Duesenberg with a plank stuck through its windscreen. It’s been there forever. These people. The curved driveway up to the farmhouse is covered with that fine reddish-looking dust from the cob of the corn. Cracks in the tarmac are red lines to cross. It plays havoc with the allergies too. My ex had to move all her plants out our old place to create this unique eco-system for me. When she finally quit on the relationship, she said it had been like living with the boy in the bubble, if the boy in the bubble also had some serious alcohol issues. I can’t say I regret her cutting loose. Shelley was about as funny as diphtheria.

On the porch I blast these massive clouds of nasal spray up my nostrils. Mrs. G stands behind the screen door in her dressing gown, like she’s Hugh Hefner reincarnated, contemplating me squirt the sinus stuff. She looks mildly perturbed. The screen between us is layered with bugs look like ladybugs but aren't, fake ladybugs from China got where they shouldn't. You ask me, Trump should be putting tariffs on them.

“Hello there, Mrs. G,” I say to her, friendly like. “Can Frankie come out to play?”

The old woman says nothing, looking at me with a face like haunted Tupperware. After a while of the blank staring, she gets bored and goes inside to wake him. I believe she thinks I lead her son astray, but it’s not like that one needs much leading.

The porch steps flake long thin strips of blue paint, and I commence squashing bugs on them. Their little red and black oval bodies explode underfoot with a satisfying crack, but they don't half smell putrid. Frankie emerges like a badger from its set and flops down beside me. He’s barefoot in black shorts and a wife-beater and his face is drawn with sleep. It’s 2pm. He has taken to sporting a faux Mohawk makes him look like a moderately powerful Pokémon. The effect is achieved by means of globs of gel makes his hair shine like videotape and is his way of expressing his personality, such as it is. Frankie’s a bit challenged in the social arena since it looks as if he’s had half his face carved off by a diseased butcher. But it was an accident just. Back when he was still cooking, butterfingers fumbled a pack of lithium strips into the anhydrous ammonia and blew up a barn. After that misadventure it was the Nazi method all the way for him. In general, Frankie is thick as two short planks, and I can't say that setting his face on fire and having his ass somersaulted into their pigsty that time did wonders for his character.

“It smells,” Frankie says, being ever the observant type.

“It was fine till you got here,” I tell him. “But let's assume it's coincidental.”

Foghorn Leghorn regards me blankly while fondling his spike. “So, is he driving here today or what?”

“No,” I tell him. “He'll be sailing down the Mississippi in a raft made of turnips, for variety's sake. What you think, Frankie? Of course, he’s fucking driving.”

“I was just asking, is all,” he says, looking peeved.

I indulge in the stomping of a few more bugs. Now the porch stinks worse than a porta potty at the Knox county fair. “He’ll be over Lake Storey in an hour,” I explain. “For our rendezvous, s’il vous plait mon sewer.”

“What you going to say to him about it then?”

“It?” I decide to pretend to be baffled by the use of the indefinite article.

“You know.”

“That we might need to renegotiate a few details of our agreement.”

“Like what?”

“Like what about I take care of the business end, and you don't sweat it?”

Frankie shakes his head from side to side in the fashion of a horse. “Yeah, but.”
“I’ll make a real compelling case that he should be contributing more to your 401K, Frankie. How’s that suit you?”

“I don’t have a 401K,” Frankie announces, looking stupid as he is. Last summer, I had to disabuse him of the notion that hepatitis B was a vitamin.

“What do you have stuffed down your shorts there?” I ask, noticing the bulge.

“It ain’t nothing,” Frankie says, looking shifty as a cobra.

“By my reckoning that is either a gun or you have acquired a colossal hard on.” I nod at the jut. “And, honest to God, I’m not sure which I find most disturbing.”

Frankie lays the gun down on the steps in front of us, looking chagrined. I pick it up, despite knowing where it’s been. It’s a Bersa Thunder 380, and loaded.

“Who do you think you are? James Fucking Bond? You don’t think he’ll
search us? He finds this on you there’ll be hell to pay, double O.”

Frankie just shrugs. “Better safe than sorry,” he offers.

“In your case it’d be sorry. Seriously, with your track record you’re most liable to shoot your own balls off.”

“It was just a thought,” Frankie adds, turning purple as the creepy dinosaur used to be on the idiot box.

“And whom,” I ask, being grammatically correct, “did we agree would do the thinking here, knucklehead?”

It's a half hour drive to Galesburg and not scenic. I overtake a truck whose driver is reading a newspaper. No hills, few inclines, treeless stretches and a river the color of cold. I-74 cuts through miles of flatland, empty fields either side stretching to the edge of the sky. A scarecrow a red rag tied to a stick. When I see the sign for the last remaining Lincoln-Douglas debate site I cut out past houses the size of garages dwarfed by their swimming pools, a dead Maytag factory, Carl Sandburg College, the place I got my Associates. I could have gone on to Western after that and got a degree but what’s the use? These days we all dance to the algorithms. You can’t go against the grain. Face it: the robots are coming for your job too. In the gig economy, a person needs a gig.

“I was watching this documentary last night about how ships are put together,” I say, informatively. Frankie looks at me, vaguely curious. “It was riveting.”

“How come?” Frankie blinks at me like a broken machine. “Sounds like a
real boring show.”

“Never mind,” I say, realizing he’s a complete lost cause. “Never fucking mind.”

“You think you can get Crowell to give us a bigger cut then?”

Frankie's back on his hobbyhorse. There’s no getting him off it now, one track mind. He thinks our Dubuque friend shortchanges us, and he’s not altogether mistaken.

“The thing about him is, he underestimates people,” I explain, reasonably. “That’s good for us. A person underestimates his underlings is in for a rude awakening.”

“I already had a rude awakening,” Frankie says, offering a fake yawn. I’m wary of this attempt at humor and watch him out the corner of my eye, wondering if he’s secreted a knife. “We’re going to be early as fuck for this meeting,” he says, innocently.

As it happens, we're late. Crowell prowls the rinky-dink dock talking on his phone while contemplating the wave-less fake lake, like he's Moses arranging to have the waters parted. He’s being worn by a new outfit; this blue shirt and black slacks combo, yellow socks the color of vomit and little wire-rim specs shade in the sun. He’s shooting for the suburban dad look but it’s like someone shaved a monkey and kicked it through Banana Republic. Reclining against this hideous snot-green Chrysler minivan is a heavyset bald gorilla with a neck tattoo who looks like he could easily go three MMA rounds with Behemoth. Crowell travels with muscle these days, now he's making money hand over fist, now he’s getting Sackler big.

This sidekick finger-walks my pockets, tracks with his palms the inside seam of my jeans and socks. He’s not conversationally inclined. “I didn't realize we were this intimate,” I tell him. “If you're feeling frisky you should ask me out for a drink first.”

The knuckle-dragger doesn’t crack a smile, just starts right in patting down Frankie too, then nods at the boss, job well done.

“You're late,” Crowell observes, slipping the phone in his pocket. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that punctuality is the politeness of Kings?”

“Thing is, I'm not a King,” I tell him. “Not yet.”

This remark causes him to eye-fuck me some, not liking that sentiment at all, not appreciating ambition in a subordinate. He looks at Frankie and frowns. “And who's this fine specimen of humanity when he's at home?”

“This would be Frankie, and he's not at home right now.”

“And who might Frankie be?”
“He’s my employee of the month.”

Crowell saunters over to him. “Are you from the future?” he inquires.

“What?” Frankie says, slow on the uptake.

“I mean did you quantum leap here from an alternative universe? What's with the funky hairdo at all? Are you auditioning to be a toilet brush?”

Frankie looks at Crowell glassy-eyed and I’m relieved I took the gun from him. I decide it’s for the best to change the subject. “You were admiring our fine lake view?”

“There is no view, and this puddle is a sorry excuse for a lake.” Crowell spits a thick gob in the water. “I could never live in a podunk town in a thousand years.”

“It’s not so bad,” I tell him, not believing it.

  “If I had to stay in a place like this I'd go loco. Seriously, I’d just stick my face in a meatgrinder and go live in the woods.” Crowell nods towards Frankie. “Like what Mr. Stein here went and did.”

“What?” Frankie says.

“Where we going then?” Crowell asks, clapping his hands, suddenly all business. “I take it you’re not scooting around with money in the car. It’s not your mojo.”

“Frankie's farm,” I say. “It's not very far.”

“Oh boy. Can you even believe it?” Crowell starts up this ugly cackling noise. “They keep cash on hand in an actual farm.”

“My name isn’t Stein,” Frankie says.

  Crowell quits cackling. “Is it MacDonald?”

“No,” says Frankie, still humorless as the Pope. “Gustafsson.”

“This must be fucking trying,” Crowell says to me, exasperated.

“Yeah, but he does try though,” I point out. “Credit where it’s due.”

“Leave your car,” Crowell orders. “We’ll drop you back. We’re taking mine.”

“No offense,” I say to him, grimacing. “But your ride is a bit embarrassing to be seen in. Looks like something a suicidal soccer mom would drive.”

“Which would be the fucking point,” Crowell says, slowly, squinting at me with those fish-pale eyes of his. “I don’t know about you, dipshit, but when I’m moving a few thousand Oxycodone, Fentanyl, and Percocet, I prefer going the inconspicuous route.”

I suppose he has a point, but I can’t say I’m feeling the love today. “Do we still get our orange slices though?” I ask him.

The one good thing about a Chrysler minivan is there’s plenty legroom in the back. That’s where we’re put, which means Crowell has to turn around in his seat to insult us. Frankie doesn’t wear a seatbelt because he suffers from claustrophobia. He’d have a certificate of exemption on his license, if he still had a license. Crowell punches the address into his GPS. Now he can find the farm whenever he wants, which is not a good thing at all.

“You still seeing the one with the legs?” he asks me.

“No, she left the state.”

“With another guy?”

“No, with the circus.”

“Well, she was already used to hooking up with clowns right enough." Crowell locates a smirk. "Usual issue was it? See, doctors can treat impotence and handle cases of premature ejaculation, but when you have both conditions. . .” He’s grinning ear to ear now, mouth like a coin slot. “They have such a small
window to work with.”

“You're dead funny,” I tell him.

“But my pockets aren't full of money,” Crowell says. “Yet, at any rate.”

“We’ve been giving that some thought,” I announce, sounding nervous as I am.

“We?” Crowell frowns. “Who are you now? The Queen of England?”

“I’ve been thinking that there are elements of the recent surcharge on delivery expenses and overhead may be contractually negotiable as regards inventory.”

“Why can’t you talk properly?” Crowell asks me. “What’s wrong with you?”

“It’s just that . .”

“Are you serious? When does retail ever dictate terms to wholesale?” Crowell leans across to put his mouth beside the driver’s ear. “You think Jeff Bezos here is playing with a full deck, Ivan?”

“Ivan never has much to say,” I observe.

Crowell sighs. “Ivan doesn’t speak English,” he explains.

“Why do you keep talking to him then?”

“Well, he gets the gist.” Crowell rubs the driver's bald head with his palm, like it's a magic 8 ball. “It’s all contextual.”

“He’s Russian then, is he?”

“Something like that.” Crowell shrugs. “He’s from Idontgiveafuckastan.”

“And his name is really Ivan?”

“Christ, no. We call him Ivan because he’s a terrible person.” Crowell fixes me with a glare. “You bring money up again I’ll set Ivan on you, so I will.”

I decide in the circumstances to let the subject drop.

Crowell is staring Frankie down. “That goes for you too, Rooster-Prick.”

This most recent exchange proves somewhat chilling to the social affections and we drive in silence for a while. I contemplate clouds thick as beaten egg whites through a crooked black lace of trees. It’s like the photograph of a memory I used to have.

Crowell decides to pull the thread of our earlier conversation. “So, what was it went wrong between you and legs then?”

“Lots of things. Her parents didn’t appreciate me.”

“How was that?”

“Her father told Shelley he wanted me to hurry up and murder her so the family could get to grieve properly.”

“That's harsh.” Crowell nods thoughtfully. “That's toxic masculinity is what that is. Shelley was the name then, eh? Like the stupid-ass poet fell in the water that time?”

“Uh-huh. No relation but.”

“Still have her digits? Might give her a buzz next time I'm stuck in this wasteland.” Crowell turns to Ivan. “This girl had the longest legs.”

“They went all the way to the ground,” I add.

Crowell wrinkles his pug nose at me, disgusted, reeking of Old Spice Swagger. “And what she was doing with a loser like this I cannot for the life of me fathom.”

I used to bitch to Shelley all the time about Crowell's fuckery, and she would just laugh and say he sounded like me, except he said out loud what I was thinking. I was just more restrained, she noted, which was ironic given that restraining order she took out.

  Crowell is incredulous when he finds out where we store the inventory. I explain how even the police in Illinois are cautious about getting in a grain bin. “Morons keep falling in them,” I tell him. “They’re notoriously unsafe.”

“Once you go down in a grain bin,” Frankie observes, mordantly, “you die.”

“And you keep the money inside this thing as well? Holy fuck.”

“We don’t never use this one no more for nothing,” Frankie says. “It’s obsolated.”

“That’s not a word,” Crowell points out, examining the sheer sides of the silo.

“But the cops don’t know it’s no longer used, see?” I am sensing a possible opening. “We could store a lot more, a ton more. Profit margins could be tremendous. I’d say we’re utilizing at most 20% capacity right now. Scratching the surface. Macomb could be the new Medellin. We could be doing far more than Knox and Warren. Could service Peoria and Fulton too. In no time this place could practically be. . .  Iowa.”

“Talk to me,” Crowell says, sniffing filthy lucre.

While I do the hard pitch, Frankie heads on up the farmhouse to get the keys from his mom and comes back to conduct a tour of the facility. He shows Crowell the unloading building on its raised cement slab, the old conveyer system, storage bins, the grain dryer. Crowell sees the possibilities, his brain turning over like a slot machine. Now the two of them are getting along like a house on fire, all forgiven. After we unload the pills from the mini-van and slide the bags through the vents and under the grain, Frankie decides he also needs to show him where we hide the money, which is a terrible idea. We leave Ivan by the car and the three of us climb a 20-foot metal ladder and crawl on hands and knees into the silo. From the gantry, you can look down at the grain mound where the pills are tucked away. Across the gantry, Frankie has rigged planks to make a serviceable walkway. He points to where the cash bags are wedged behind the stanchions on the far side. Of course, Crowell steps out onto the planks for a better look. Above the walkway old corn is caked on the sides of the bin forming a solid crust overhead. Frankie starts jabbing at the loose corn kernels sticking there with this iron bar he’s found somewhere.

“Stop that,” I tell him. “It’s dangerous.”

“How?” he asks, and the mass of grain settled against the walls gives and all the mess caked on the sides collapses in this massive avalanche that right away sweeps Crowell ass over tits off the walkway. Down he goes, heaved with a dull thump against the corrugated silo on the descent, to land face down in three feet of corn, which is sort of amusing. Getting to his feet, he doesn’t look that amused though.

“Jesus,” I say. “You stupid fuck, Frankie.”

“Oopsie-doopsie,” Frankie says, suppressing a fit of the giggles.

“How do I get out of this thing?” Crowell yells up at us, feeling at his head with his fingers. He’s seething like a pit bull. “By the way, you two retards are dead.” He commences groping around in the grain searching for his specs.

“That’s a terrible attitude,” Frankie says to me.
“So, how do we him up from there, as a matter of interest?” I ask. “A rope?”

“We don’t,” Frankie says, looking at me like I’m stupid. He bawls down at Crowell, “We’re not the ones are dead here,” and bangs the iron bar hard three times on the metal and immediately this grinding vibration wells up around us.

Crowell is startled and wheels around, a bit panicky, wondering what the noise is. I know what the noise is. The electric motor on the north side that starts the v-belts has started up. The belts open the horizontal floor augur in the hopper that speeds the flow of grain. The sudden displacement sucks Crowell to the floor of the silo, engulfing him. Moving grain does not support the weight of a person. Once you get in, it’s like water. A body in grain takes seconds to sink, or so I’m learning. Crowell gives a choked scream as an air pocket pulls at him and yellow-brown kernels get forced up his nose, into his ears, down his throat. His fancy outfit is going to be ruined, and he worked so hard at it.

“We have to get him out,” I say, clawing at Frankie’s arm.

“Why?” Frankie asks.

And it’s only then I realize, being slow on the uptake.

Crowell slowly slides into the sinkhole frantic as a man caught in quicksand, scratching at the surface. “I’m going to die,” he screams up. “My God, I’m going to die.”

“That’s right,” Frankie yells back. “This here rooster-prick has to agree.”

The two of us watch as the kernels pour past his chest, up his chin and over his head. Then there’s just corn where once there was Crowell.

“He always was a bit corny.” Frankie looks at me and his eyes are slits. “That’s me being James Fucking Bond, knucklehead.”


Frankie clutches a Bud light bottle in his right hand as he walks over to the car. Ivan sees the beer and smiles and reaches his hand out and Frankie smashes the bottle over his head, which causes it to cave like a soft-boiled egg. The neck of the bottle is still between his fingers, the broken section ending in a jagged splinter, and he starts carving at Ivan’s face with it, whipping the sharp glass back and forth artistically, each slash opening new spurting channels of red. An ear is hanging in a way that ears do not. Ivan is still very professional about it though, backhanding Frankie in the solar plexus and knocking the wind out of him, then pivoting on his left foot to follow up with a right cross, in the same motion raising his knee and thudding it in Frankie’s belly so that he jack-knifes forward, sending spit showering out his mouth.

As Ivan begins to explore the possibility of choking Frankie to death, I consider an intervention. “Hip,” says Frankie, but I'm assuming he means help.

Ivan tosses Frankie to the ground like a rag doll and opens the passenger side door. That he is even semi-functional with his head like that constitutes a miracle of sorts. Ivan reaches in the glove compartment, for a gun I suppose, and what is left of his face explodes like a sledgehammered watermelon. This mélange of blood and bone fragments and brains showers across the dashboard and windscreen and then he topples with surreal slowness and falls onto the grass lengthwise like a concussed cartoon character.

A glittering dust of bees-wings is falling through the declining sun behind Mrs. G. I’m looking right at her. She is about sixty, today in jeans and work boots, with too long hair, gray streaking the black, and childish bangs. I’ve never seen her up close and fully clothed. Her face is grimly set and I notice that she is quite terrifying. It was her started the machinery. The AR-15 is aimed at my groin and she is most definitely considering her options. My bowels at once evacuate, which is embarrassing. Mrs. G only lowers the barrel very slowly. “Little Alec,” she says, nodding at me. Then she looks up at the sky and yawns. “The nights are fair drawing in.”

“You OK?” I ask Frankie, sprawled and wheezing like a busted concertina.

“Get up,” his mother barks. “There’s nothing the matter with you, shake it off.”

All the excitement has left the purple imprint of finger-bruises on his neck and caused his mohawk to deflate somewhat. “Thanks for nothing,” he says to me, spitting out a bloody tooth. “Don’t you ever call me a stupid fuck again or I'll do for you.”

The night has indeed drawn in, a moon like a shard of fingernail in the gloaming. A faint and steady rain of dead insects spirals down from the big bulb on the silo, little toasted corpses pankling against the metal side. Crowell’s cellphone has popped out one of the augur holes and is ringing. IPhones are sturdy, being made in China, like the ladybugs. Through a hole in the bin, I can make out the outline of a leg. I look at the phone screen and see someone called Rhiannon is calling. I don't know who that is, maybe his daughter? I know what it was her mother used to listen to.

“Well,” I say, silencing the cell. “This is a situation.”

“How's that?” asks Mrs. G.

I make the discovery that I can't seem to stop shaking and sniffing. “I was alluding to the current double homicide debacle?”

“Townie got all the big words,” Frankie says to his mother, sneering.

“Must be a real whizz at the Scrabble,” she says.

I can only stare at them, teeth still chattering like castanets.

“Francis and I have this,” Mrs. G. says, steelily. “What I need for you to do is wipe this car down and drive it back and leave it at the lake and get your own car and go home. Do you think you can manage that now? Do you want me to write it down?”

“There are bits of brains,” I observe. “The seatback's a bloody mess.”

“So?” she snarls at me. “What of it? The gunk is inside us is always wanting to get out. Bleach in the scullery. Give it a good scrub. Come back for further instructions tomorrow. There’s a lot to do now with my supplier gone, things to consider, arrangements to be made. Business can't wait. I can’t sleep on this.”

“There are cameras,” I tell her. “When they find his car, they’ll trace it to me.”

“College-boy must have seen that shit on CSI,” Frankie says.

Mother and son laugh at me together in the mothlight.

“You used a burner when you talked to him, right?”


“Get a clue, boy,” she says. “You think there are decent cameras on these roads? Where you think this is? This is nowhere Illinois. No one gives a shit about you.”

“What about the. . .?” I cannot seem to articulate the word bodies.

Mrs. G's laugh is the sound a metal garbage disposal makes under a sink. “Pigs got to eat,” she says.

I'm shaking like a lemon blancmange and my nose is running. “I need to change my pants,” I suggest.

“Yeah,” she says, wrinkling her nose at me. “You do that.”

At midnight the cold-green river is an ink sheet and the highway a darkened blue, that big white moon before me. Insects swirl in the lamp beams of the mini-van, splatter against the windscreen. The fields are filled with those tall, bone-white stalks whose tips emit red light blinks like giant lonesome smokers in the dark. They look like flocks of giant, three-winged seagulls until you get close and can see the long sharp-edged shadow swoop of blades longer than the Statue of Liberty’s arm. I want those great white wings to snatch me into the sky away from all of this. I’m in way over my head. I need them to scoop me up into a rope of trembling black stars. 

Rob McClure Smith is a writer living in Galesburg, Illinois. His short story collection The Violence was published by Queen's Ferry Press in 2015. He is currently working on a novel about a Scottish detective investigating a murder in Washington D.C.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Paper Boats, fiction by Paul J. Garth

reprinted from The Desperate and the Damned

They had only been gone a few hours, just long enough to see a movie and pick up some food for the kid, but somehow that’d been long enough for Taylor Olsen to die, the boy still strapped to the metal folding chair Neil had tied him to before they left, his face blue, his little clenched mouth filled with vomit.
Neil stood there, refusing to go any further into the small bedroom they’d kept the kid stored in, his back pushed against the doorframe, the circuits of his brain suddenly overloaded. Acid surged in his throat. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” he asked. “God, he’s dead, isn’t he?”

A dizziness had fallen over him, throwing the world out of tilt, and in that sudden vertigo he had felt something fall away inside of himself, something almost physical. His hands had gone clammy and he ran them down the curve of his belly, searching. It was as though there had been a great fundamental piece of himself that’d been suddenly sheared away, swallowed by an invisible abscess. Sweat burst across his brow and he became obsessed with the idea that if he could somehow make the kid alive again, the new and sucking abscess he felt inside himself would close.

He fought to breathe.

“Yeah,” Rex said. He stood stopped in front of the body, turned back, holding Neil’s eyes, watching Neil’s panic crest like a wave. His face was smooth, his voice calming, unflappable. “He’s dead, but Jesus, you’ve got to relax, man. It’s not ideal, but it’s fine. Nothing has changed. They don’t know. They’re still gonna drop the cash.”

“But they’re not going to get the kid back.” It came out sounding more like a question than a statement, as though there was still a possibility, a chance, that somehow Taylor’s parents would get the kid back. He swallowed, his words hanging in the air, his tongue thick in his mouth and swollen as though with salt, like a man gone overboard. He was on the verge of tears. Of tearing out his own hair. Of going to the back of the house and pulling out the shotgun he knew Rex kept on the top shelf of the closet and putting both barrels in his mouth. “I can’t believe I let you to talk me in to this.”
They’d been in the back of a darkened bar when they first worked the outline of the plan, drunk on cheap beer and resentment. “No one will get hurt,” Rex had promised. “And with the money, when we’re settled, you can send for Meredith if you want. You can try again. This kid can be your shot.”
Neil nodded along, the taste of bitter anger and aged yeast in the back of his throat. He was unsure of what Rex was saying, but even more unsure of the remaining paths his life had left to explore, and in his anger, the plan made a certain kind of sense. It wasn’t that he couldn’t get another job. It wasn’t even that they’d been laid off - it was winter, and work had slowed to a trickle anyway. It was the way he’d been treated that pissed Neil off. It was that Mr. Olsen, who’d known all about Neil’s troubles, who’d had a man to man discussion with Neil after he’d had to call in several times the year before, had still somehow not seen him as a person, but instead as a figure to be removed from a spreadsheet. It would be a victimless crime. Not even a crime, but an investment in his future, in a chance to rebuild his life. The fact that the funds would be provided by the man who had only pretended to care about Neil’s life, right before kicking the last leg of stability out from underneath him, was too perfect to ignore. “Yeah,” Neil had said, sloshing his pint glass towards the water damaged ceiling. “Let’s goddamn do it.”
Three weeks later, they grabbed Taylor from the lobby of a suburban megachurch while the boy waited for his mother to pick him up from Wednesday night youth group. They wore masks, just in case the boy had seen them before while visiting worksites with his dad.
Neil spent the entire drive back to Rex’s house promising Taylor that he would be okay, that they weren’t going to hurt him, that none of this was his fault. “We’re just going to have a talk with your dad,” Neil told the boy. “And then you’ll see him and your mom right after. It’ll be like a camping trip. Like a dream you had once, but won’t remember later.”
And now this. A dead child tied to a chair and a rotting emptiness swirling inside of him.
Neil moved to the body, snowpack flecking off his boots. With a hesitant finger, he reached out and poked the little knees strapped together underneath the chinos, half expecting them to still kick. When they didn’t fresh bile rose in his throat.
“Dude, would you fucking stop it?” Rex grabbed Neil by the shoulder and dragged him back towards the door. “Would you just stay fucking put?”
“But they’re not going to get him back,” Neil said again, his voice breaking. His vision tunneled. His hands clasped and unclasped mindlessly. The abscess spun deeper and darker inside of his gut and blood roared in his ears. He couldn’t understand how Rex wasn’t as close to coming undone as he was, why Rex didn’t seem able to grasp how fucked they were. A kid was dead. His parent’s weren’t going to get him back. That wasn’t the kind of thing you could walk away from. That wasn’t the kind of thing that could be undone. “There’s no way for us to give him back.”
“God damn it, they don’t know that, though. They won’t know until after. And by then, we’re going to be off, living another life far the fuck away from them and from here.” There was anger in Rex’s face, but his voice remained calm, sure of the situation. Rex let go of Neil’s shirt, then went back to Taylor. He reached down and pried the boy’s little mouth open. Vomit, dried and flaky, fell out over Taylor’s baby teeth and into the lap of his little chinos. “I just don’t get how it happened, that’s all,” he said.
Neil began to pace. The smell of the fish sticks and greasy tartar sauce hung in the room, mixing with the tangy scent of the dead kid’s vomit until Neil thought he was going to be sick himself. He remembered Meredith then, how when she'd been pregnant she’d vomited almost the entire time. How, eventually, he’d gotten used to the smell as he sat on the bathroom floor next to her, rubbing her back. Neil held the memory, allowed it to buoy him, until finally the hole he’d felt inside himself seemed further away. “They’re calling soon,” he said. “Like two hours. What the hell are we going to say if they want to speak to him?”
Rex went to a dresser that stood along the far wall of the room. “We tell them no deal. They talked to him yesterday. And if they drop the money, they’ll see him tonight. Make it threatening.” He pulled a blanket from the dresser, a child’s blanket, one with tattered, worn, edges and white Nebraska football helmets on it. “You know Olsen, he’s a pussy. Won’t risk anything. If they did call the cops, that oughta call them right the fuck off.”
The football helmets on the blanket reminded Neil of something he had half known and ignored those nights they’d spent drinking and planning the abduction of Taylor Olsen. “Shit.” His voice came out flat, monotone. “They brought back the death penalty here. If they find us, they’ll kill us.”
Rex laid the blanket on the bed, then moved behind the folding chair Taylor was strapped to. He untied the ropes holding the little arms and legs. “No one is going to find us, or put us in the fucking chair. We’ve got a plan and this doesn’t change it.” He tossed the ropes behind him, then stood and slid his hands under the boy’s shoulders. “Here, help me get him onto the bed. By the time they find him, we’ll be long gone, living in one of those little Mexican towns down by the sea.”
The thought of the sea focused Neil. The abscess was still inside, swirling somewhere deep and unreachable, but the cloud of panic that had fallen over him had begun to lift at the thought. The sea. It was where Rex had promised Neil they would go after the kidnapping. A new and far away place, free of the numbing pain of the past. When he’d imagined it, lying awake in the bed he’d shared with his wife before she left, the sea had been more than just a place without his memories of Meredith and the empty room he had painted baby blue and the job he had been laid off from; it’d been a place of peace, a place where the past didn’t matter, a place on the edge of something so powerful that history forgot to exist. It was there, at the sea, where Neil and his wife would be reunited, where, together again, they would bury their grief in the constant churning of the waves.
“Are you going to help me or not?”
The sound of waves in his ears, Neil moved over to the chair Taylor Olsen sat dead in, then bent to lift the body by the ankles. He hadn’t noticed before, but now he saw Taylor’s shoes were boat shoes, gray canvas with leather strap laces. The shoes alone probably cost more than the suit Neil had been married in. He took them gently, the insides of the shoes were light, as though filled with bird bones, something too fragile to be held between his own ugly hands, then lifted. Trying not to squeeze too tightly, Neil pretended he was carrying a sandbag, something necessary and vital that would be carefully lain to keep a sudden surge of brackish water at bay. Together, Neil and Rex placed the body on the bed, then wrapped it in the threadbare Huskers blanket.
They left the house several hours later in separate cars.
The call had gone exactly as Rex said it would, and though Neil had allowed himself to believe Rex when he said they’d make it through, that they wouldn’t be caught, he remembered how he’d felt in those first moments after seeing the body, how he had felt something open up inside himself, a hole too dark to see the bottom of, it’s edges muddy and crumbling. It didn’t help that he was the one with Taylor’s body in the trunk of his Camry. That while Rex was off collecting the cash, Neil was stuck with the physical reminder of everything that had already gone wrong.
Neil took the highway towards Omaha, then exited near South Bend. The radio off, he followed surface roads until he came to a narrow tree covered turn off leading to a small campground that sat on the bank of the Platte River. The abscess swirled in him as he turned down the lonely road. He tried to think of the money, to imagine a kind of hope in it, but he knew a hundred thousand dollars wasn’t enough to erase the memory of a dead kid. It wasn’t enough to forget how cold the skin of Taylor’s ankles had felt against his hands or the strange inert weight of the child’s body.
He doubted a million would be enough to forget.
The road emptied into a small snow packed lot. Camping signs and cement trash containers and small standing charcoal pits lined the edges of the lot, the black shape of the river churning beyond. Dirty snow lay on top of gravel and frozen mud. Wind pushed through empty trees. Neil parked at the river's edge, the yellow headlights of his car shining out over the thin capped crests of the slow moving water.
An image came to his head then, startling him, something he’d seen on TV once, back when Meredith had been pregnant: a parade of slow-moving paper boats with little lanterns set softly inside, moving down the silver river of some far off European city. He remembered how moved Meredith had been by it, how her feet had felt in his hands, how warm and comforting their living room had been, and he remembered wondering what happened to the boats when the water finally broke the seal of the paper, if they continued floating without shape or if the weight of the lantern dragged them down to the bottom of the river. He’d meant to look it up, maybe try it with the kid once he was old enough.
The memory passed, leaving him uncomfortable in its wake. When he felt calmer, he reached into his jacket and pulled out his phone. Rex would be at the mall now. He would be picking up the cash any minute.
Tell me when you got it he texted, then placed his phone in the cup holder by his side.
Neil waited for a response. Time stretched out, deep and unnavigable. He took long, drawing breaths, each an attempt at stilling the swirling emptiness inside. If things had gone according to plan, Rex would be headed back to the house with the cash. Or, because he’d insisted on going to the pick-up armed, he’d could be lying dead on the floor of the Oakview mall, his life and their money gone, just like the boy in Neil’s trunk.
Five minutes went by, then ten. No answer.
“Okay,” he said to the empty car. “Okay.” He picked up the phone again, hands shaking. The abscess inside settled as Neil dialed the number from memory.
“Neil? I can’t talk now. You don’t - ”
“Mr. Olsen, I’m so sorry.”
The phone was silent for a long time, and in that silence, Neil imagined he could hear the sound of waves and the pounding of blood in Mr. Olsen’s temples and the scream his wife would make when he gripped her by the arm and told her what Neil had said. “I don’t know how I got talked into it. And I’m so sorry. I wish I could tell you how sorry.”
When Olsen spoke again, his voice was clear and surprisingly soft. ”It’s okay, Neil. Whatever you did. You did the right thing by calling me, you know that, right? I want to help you. I can help you make it okay.”
“I wish you could, but you can’t.”
“What are you saying, Neil?”
“It was Rex…”
“Rex? Neil, is that who picked up the money? Is that who it was, Rex Piccillo? He has the money, Neil. He has it. All of it. If you didn’t want to do it, it’s okay, just tell me where Taylor is and I’ll help.“
Tears crowded the corners of his eyes. Neil wiped them away, then went to the trunk, Olsen telling him all the ways he could help him as he moved. Neil opened the lid, then looked down at Taylor Olsen’s body.
“We can make this okay, Neil,” Olsen said. “We can make it like this never happened. It was Rex. I know it was Rex. I know you, Neil. I know you didn’t mean for this to happen. I know you wouldn’t have meant for things to go so far.“
In the dim light of the trunk the boy’s face was a peculiar shade of newborn pink. Neil reached down and touched it the way he imaged Mr. Olsen had done the first time he’d ever held his son. The child's father still in his ears, Neil wiped his fingers over Taylor's open eyes. He tried to close them, but the lids yawned up again, the clouded pupils staring up past Neil and the open lid of the trunk and into the overcast winter night. “I thought you’d want to say goodbye,” Neil said. “I know I would have liked that.”
A screaming sound grew from the phone, alien and wordless but something Neil recognized and knew intimately. It was the sound of overpowering pain, deep and ancient and made all the more wretched by its commonality. Crying again, Neil reached down and held the phone to the boy’s ear. He didn’t think Taylor could hear his father, but he wanted to believe that somehow some part of the boy could feel the vibrations of his father’s sound through the skin.
“That’s okay,” Neil said, unsure if he was talking to Taylor or Olsen or himself. “That’s okay for now.” He placed the phone in the back corner of the trunk, then picked up the dead boy, cradling him in his arms. He walked down the bank of the river, his feet sliding over the hardened mud. With every step he felt that strange hole in him grow deeper, the bottom a suctioning pool that spun and spun, pulled by some unseen underground current, widening the crevasse. He wondered how long it had been there. If there had always been an emptiness in him, or if there’d only been the potential for one, an area of soft ground just waiting for some horrible tide to wash everything away.
At the water’s edge he paused, the lights of the car shining over the small waves. A small sheet of ice moved past, broken off from one of the larger floes that gathered around the pillars of the bridge spanning the interstate just upriver. The cold biting at his face, Neil wondered if Rex really had gotten the money, or if Olsen had lied to him. He wondered if Rex had kept to their plan or run off on his own, and if he had kept to the plan, how much cash would be back at the house? But if he hadn’t run off, why hadn’t he texted Neil back?
As he stepped into the water, Neil decided he didn’t care.
The coldness of the river shocked the breath from his lungs. He felt his legs go numb up to the thighs, his jacket weighed down by the sudden soaking. Neil took another step, his boots sticking in the muddy bottom. He almost slipped, righted himself, then moved deeper into the river, Taylor’s body still held tight. He waded in until the water was up to his chin, until the boy had become loose in his arms, buoyantly tugging at his grip. Neil’s teeth smashed wildly against themselves and his clipped breaths fell out of him, fogging his vision until all he could see was the body of the child and the water and the night.
The river bottom had torn away his boot and sock, leaving his toes suddenly free. He flexed them, enjoying what little he could feel, then moved on. He was deep into the river now, almost halfway to the middle, the current pulling all around him. He was far enough out to let the body go and ensure it would be carried downstream, that it wouldn’t wash ashore against the dirty brackish bank of the campground, but the idea of letting the little body go here, where it was still shallow enough for Neil to stand, seemed disrespectful somehow.
He kicked off, pushing towards the heart of the river.
Neil moved with the body until his feet could no longer feel the river bottom and the water that splashed against his face slid down his throat. Kicking to stay atop the small, rushing waves, tears and river water frosting over his eyes, Neil finally let go of what was left of Taylor Olsen.
Water pulled at the creases of the boy’s pants and the joints of the boy’s knees and arms, and Neil watched as the current grabbed the facedown boy and carried it further and further away until the body was gone, as indistinguishable and dark to Neil as any other ice floe on the river’s surface.
When the body was gone, in that darkness and cold, Neil felt a strange calmness settle over him.
His arms had grown heavy and he found his whole body was now difficult to move. Small waves sloshed against his face and eyes. Water slipped down his throat and chilled his teeth. He turned and looked for the headlights of the Camry but could not see them. He’d moved downstream, away from the riverbank and the recreation area he’d parked in.
He kicked harder, trying to right himself against the current and the river bottom below, but his knees had gone stiff and his only movement was a kind of bobbing along the surface. There was no panic, only a dim awareness of himself and the water and the shape of the river stretched out before him. The banks of the river grew no closer, and he lost himself in his rhythm, his mind going foggy and then blank, his only thought of the pull of the water and the slow cycle of his up and down movement on the surface.
The river carried him further along, the current pulling at the seat of his pants and the spread of his jacket. Neil took a deep breath and felt his legs be pulled out from underneath him. He thought of the paper boats then, of how they had glided down the glass surface of the river in that far away stone city. He thought of how much he would have liked to take his own son there to watch. They would have stood on the cobblestone bank and watched the fleet of boats flowing by, his son’s hand in his own. He could not remember what he and Meredith had planned to name the boy, had he come, but now he knew the boy should have been named Taylor. The boats would go by, and after watching silently, the boy would have looked to him and asked what happened to the boats, and Neil would have answered that, while he didn’t know for sure, he imagined the weight of the lanterns eventually tore through the paper, opening a hole, and when it did the bodies of the boats filled with water, and as the water came in they would spin and spin and then be pulled under, where they would dissolve and break up beneath the waves.
Neil was on his back now, the current moving faster.
It had been cold, but he’d become used to it, just as he'd gotten used to the smell of Meredith’s constant sickness as she’d carried their doomed child. The hole inside, the abscess that had felt bottomless and churning was gone now. Instead, he felt at peace, as though he belonged there in the river. He could feel its waters filling him, making him whole.
His head slipped underneath the water, and when it broke the surface again, Neil realized he wasn’t sure how long he had been under. He couldn’t feel the cold anymore. He could not see the darkness of the sky. He barely felt the water washing over the edges of his face. It wasn’t so bad, floating like this, Neil decided. He could go on a while longer.
The sound of waves in his ears, Neil let the current carry him downstream.

Paul J. Garth has been published in Thuglit, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Plots with Guns, Crime Factory, Tough, and several other anthologies and web magazines. He lives and writes in Nebraska, where he lives with his family. An editor at Shotgun Honey, he is at work on his first novel, and can be found online by following @pauljgarth on Twitter.

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.