Monday, June 6, 2022

Undark, fiction by Mary Thorson

Ottawa, IL. 1930

Annie carefully handled the watch faces. Looking at them for ten hours a day could make it seem as if she dealt in frozen time. When she finally glanced up at the clock on the wall, she couldn’t help but think it was strange when the hands moved. She had become more comfortable with time when it was stopped. She dipped the brush in the glow paint and did one slow stroke along the minute hand. Then she put the brush between her lips to gather the bristles to a point and painted the stubby hour hand. She had to apply a certain amount of pressure without any assisting resistance, which was always difficult. 

“I’m so tired, I could fall asleep with my eyes open,” Vikki said.  

“Mhmm,” Annie hummed in an effort to keep her lips taut. 

They had two hours left in the day, which would go slower the closer it came to an end. Of course, every job was like that, but the factory acted as a vacuum for time. Inside they kept the lights lower to better see the paint. The work was monotonous but needed a steady hand and an eye for detail. Small, small details. The women—all of them were women—talked to each other, but they did so quietly, fearing if they made louder noises, it might knock their strokes out of line. 

Vikki had been slowing down lately. Her bin was coming up shorter, and Annie would give her some to meet the quota. She slumped next to Annie, and her spine curved out from her dramatically, folding her down to the table. Annie tried to straighten herself out in response, trying to press herself up for as long as she could until she forgot. She always had fine posture. Years of her mother prodding with boney fingers at the middle of her back, or pulling at her shoulders, ensured it. Unconsciously, she must have been mimicking Vikki, the way couples start to look like one another after a while because they pick up each other’s mannerisms. Or how some people’s dogs to look like them. She hated the idea that Vikki might have more of an imprint on her than Frank, but it made sense. Annie had counted it out once. One-hundred-and-sixty-eight hours in a week, and the saying went, “eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for what we will.” It would be nice if time split so perfectly, but Frank worked third shift at the glass plant. He slept until dinner, and Annie hesitated to call his first hour waking, but she needed the time so it would be four hours until he left at 10:30 p.m. Then she slept alone. She didn’t even need the waking distinction; she spent more time with Vikki without question. 

“I need a new brush,” Vikki said, holding the pulled-out bristles in-between her teeth. 

Annie reached for the jar of fresh ones, her fingers aching as she stretched them out for the first time in hours. She picked one out and handed it over without looking, but Vikki didn’t grab it. She waited, pushing it closer, and still nothing. 

“Here,” she said. 

But Vikki stared down into her own hand, in which she held something small. Annie leaned closer, rocking on her tailbone. It was a tooth. Not a piece of one, but whole. Wet and with roots, it shined in Vikki’s hand like a pearl. For a moment, Annie got the sensation that she was dreaming. She had never seen a whole adult tooth apart from the body before. She had always taken care of her teeth. She looked up at Vikki who still studied it. Vikki swept a finger in her mouth and it came out with very little blood. 

“I don’t know,” Vikki started. 

“Let’s go to the bathroom,” Annie said. 

She got up, grabbing Vikki’s other hand so she could continue cradling the tooth. They walked to the bathroom, Annie trying to go as fast as she could so no one would see. Inside the small pale room, she had her sit down on the toilet. 

“Open,” Annie said. 

Vikki shook her head. 

“Come on, now. Let’s see what happened.” 

“Nothing happened,” Vikki said. It came out strange as she tried not moving her lips, like a ventriloquist. 

“You must have bit on the brush, that’s why the bristles came off.”

She shook her head again and started to cry. Annie kneeled in front of her, folding her fingers over the tooth so she couldn’t look anymore. 

“It’s just a tooth, dear. Let me see.”

Vikki let out shaky breaths and opened her mouth a little. Annie could barely see, but she found the dark spot.

“It’s a back tooth, you’ll hardly be able to notice,” she said. 

Then she saw another blank space on the other side. 

“Vikki,” she said. 

Vikki closed her mouth, rolling her lips in, making a straight, colorless line on her face, and shook her head as she started to cry. She brought her hands up to cover her face, but then the tooth was there. 

“I don’t know what’s happening. Two this week. I thought it was an accident the first time. I was eating and maybe I had bitten down wrong. I thought it was strange that the whole tooth came loose, but I have had a terrible ache. I thought, just a cavity.” She shrugged, her hands starting to shake. 

“Did you make an appointment with the dentist?”

“I thought, since the tooth fell out, that I didn’t need to anymore.”

“What about the toothache? Still there?”

“It’s everywhere.” Vikki put her fingers to her jaw but held them just over the skin, afraid to touch. 

“Let’s go after work, okay? I’ll walk with you.”

Vikki nodded, rubbing the tooth in her hand with her thumb. 


The dentist was closed when they arrived, which Annie suspected would happen. Vikki stayed behind as Annie went up to the window and peered into the dark office. The hard dentist chairs and trays reflected some light from outside, but it was otherwise empty. She walked Vikki home; she only lived a few blocks from the factory. Vikki stayed quiet the whole way and stared down at the sidewalk. When they got to her door, Annie noticed that the white paint was chipping off, and the frame was slightly warped. Vikki went in, leaving the door open behind her, so Annie followed. The inside was dirty more than messy. It smelled like the inside of an unwashed laundry hamper. Vikki kept walking toward the back of the house without turning any lights on. She went into her bedroom and laid down, facing away from the door. 

“Do you need anything?” Annie asked. 

“I just need to rest. I’m so tired.”

“Do you still have the tooth?” 

Vikki stretched her arm behind her and opened up her hand, giving it to her. Annie hesitated and held her breath as she grabbed it. 

“Where should I put it?” 

“Next to the other one on my nightstand, there.” 

The other looked just like the one she held. For some reason, it surprised her. She laid it down so it would line up next to its twin.

“You’ll go tomorrow morning, then? First thing?”

Vikki nodded with her head against the pillow. Her brown hair fell out of the bun it had been in. 

“Do you want anything to eat before…” But she trailed off. 

Vikki didn’t answer. 

“I’ll come check on you tomorrow, after work. I’m sure it’s nothing, darling. I’m sure you have nothing to be worried about. Could just be your diet, that’s all.” 

As Annie struggled to shut the front door, she thought about what it might take to jam a tooth back into its place. 


Frank was asleep in his chair when Annie walked in. The darkness in her house made her think a layer of grime was covering every surface, so she hurried over to the lamp that stood just over his head. 

“God, Annie,” Frank said, covering his face with both arms. 

He barely opened his eyes as he looked up at her, trying to make her out in those first moments after waking. After he focused, he grabbed her hand and pulled her down onto his lap. 

“Let’s sleep a bit longer here, okay?”

She pressed into him for a moment, putting her face against his neck and smelling him before pushing herself off. 

“I have to make dinner.”

“Who can eat when they’re this tired?” 

“When you are tired. Besides, you have to work soon,” she said as she walked into the kitchen.

“What time is it?”

“About 8:30.” 

“And you’re just getting home? Where’ve you been?” 

“Vikki’s tooth fell out. Her second tooth, I guess, so I took over to the dentist, which was closed, then I walked her home,” Annie said. “Oh, don’t look like that, it’s not what you think.” 

“What is it?” He said, dropping his hand from his mouth. 

“I don’t know, really. They weren’t rotted, they looked like perfectly fine teeth.” 

Frank shivered. “I’m not so sure I’m ready to eat just yet.”

“You’ll get over it.” 

“Well, I thought we might lie down for a bit.” He came up behind her, putting his hands on both of her arms, squeezing just slightly. 

She tried not to but tensed against him, and he let go as if she had burned him. 

“Nothing will happen if we don’t try,” he said as he walked back into the living room. 

She grabbed hold of the counter and leaned over the sink. Her right hand still felt stiff from the day, and she stretched it out. Annie turned on the faucet and splashed some cold water on her face. Thinking about going to bed with Frank terrified her. It had been months since it had been pleasurable. Months since they talked to each other quietly in their own home, as if they were teenagers. Months since they touched each other discreetly and then luridly, with the freedom of not having to be careful. A different kind of fun than before. After the first twelve months, the first twelve disappointments of reaching down and finding that she had not stopped herself, they went to the doctor, who told them, “Nothing to worry about. Sometimes it just takes a while. People always think it’ll be easy, like they can think themselves into having a baby, but it can take work. All good things take work.” The way he said it made it feel as if she was being scolded for being presumptive or lazy. She tried to explain her family history, how her mother had eight children, and how Frank was one of ten, that it didn’t seem to be an issue for any of her siblings. The doctor waved them off. After that, she dreaded sex. She started to see it as something she had to do until they got what they wanted, and then they could stop. 

Frank had his head in his hands, and for a second Annie thought he was crying.

“Frank?” she asked. 

He looked up at her, dry-eyed and angry. 

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I think it’s me. I don’t think I can.” 

Frank got up and put his arms around her. She thought, then, that it would be appropriate to cry, but she couldn’t force herself to. She had gotten used to the feeling of being empty there. She thought of a dark cavity that was slowly spreading but remembered that Vikki’s teeth were almost perfectly white. Frank moved his hands  over her back slowly. He sighed and hummed lowly against her hair. Now would be a good time to do something. To sway slightly against him, not seductively, but enough to respond. She couldn’t, though. The rigidness ran through her, set deep in her bones, and she couldn’t let it go. She tried; she imagined it leaking out and breaking apart in her blood. But, when she shifted, it was there still. Frank let go. 

“Alright, Annie.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I have to go. They want me in early tonight.” 

“What about dinner?” 

“Not hungry,” he said as he grabbed his coat and left. 

Annie expected him to slam the door, but he didn’t. He closed it as if he were trying to keep quiet. 


Annie sat alone at work the next day, possibly for the first time. She couldn’t remember a day before when Vikki wasn’t there on her right. The longer the day went on, the more exposed she felt. Annie couldn’t help herself from checking the clock on the wall, over and over, and it kept going, but slowly. She had never seen it go so slow. When she looked down at the watch face, only the fifth one she’d been able to put in her hand that day, her fingers tingled slightly, or she thought they did. She rubbed them on her skirt hoping the feeling would show itself again, but it didn’t. Against her, her fingers felt normal. 

“Are you alright?” The shift supervisor stood above her with her hands behind her back. 

“I’m fine, sorry.”

The supervisor tilted her head towards the empty bin. 

“I know. I’m sorry, I haven’t felt very well this morning.”

“Ah, must be going around. Your table partner is ill as well.”

“Did you talk to her?” 

“No, somebody called on her behalf. I believe it was her doctor.” 

Annie looked over at the empty stool.

“Do you need to go home? I don’t want anyone else on my floor getting sick.”

“I think I might.” 

The woman smiled in a way that made Annie feel ashamed. She was thick all the way through. Not large, just solid. Sturdy. Someone had once said that about Annie; she couldn’t remember who, maybe her father or an uncle, but it was a long time ago. The woman turned and stepped over to the next table. Annie put the watch face down. She had only painted the hands and half of the numbers. Three to nine. The dot in-between the five and six was slightly off the mark. She would have to throw this one away. She grabbed her purse and walked toward the stairs. On her way, she saw something out of the corner of her eye, something floating in the dark. She stopped and stared, then she understood. Two of the younger girls were in the bathroom, and their giggling made Annie’s skin crawl. The light was off, but she could see their mouths. Their teeth. One had painted her front teeth and smiled in the mirror. The other had painted a moustache that twirled into spirals on her cheeks. Their nails glowed, too, as they touched their lips and looked at themselves, laughing.


Outside was unforgivingly bright, and Annie kept her eyes tight as she walked, only looking up when she came to an intersection. She traced back the way from the day before, and when she approached the block of white rowhouses, she became nervous. She saw Vikki’s, the fifth one in, and she stared at it. Once, when she was a teenager, she was watching her baby brother, and he fell out of his high chair. It was very quiet for a moment, and instead of rushing to him, her first reaction was to step backward. She wanted to run from him, and the feeling was instinctual, a sudden reflex that took over her entire body. Then he started screaming, and she knew she had to move. She liked to think that she waited in the silence because she didn’t think he was hurt, but that wasn’t it. She knew what it was, and she was afraid of it now, but she started moving, anyway.  

When she got to the dullest house on the block, she lightly knocked on the door. Someone moved around inside quickly, then they opened the door. For a moment, Annie was relieved. Vikki seemed just fine. She looked healthier than the day before, to be sure. But then, it wasn’t Vikki. Of course, it wasn’t. Her hair was more auburn. Brilliantly auburn, and her eyes, while they were blue and shaped like almonds, were brighter and more animated. They looked around intentionally, their lids reacting appropriately. 

“I’m sorry,” Annie said. 

The woman smiled and leaned against the door frame. She reached out as Annie started down the stairs. 

“It’s alright,” she said. “Are you here for Vikki?”  

 Annie was on the third step of the little cement porch with her hand on the wrought iron railing.

“Is she home?” Annie asked. 

Then the woman did a strange thing. It was almost as if she wilted. She looked down at the ground and then back at Annie. 

“No, I’m afraid not. She’s in the hospital.”

Annie didn’t answer right away. She thought the woman meant to say something else. 

“What for?”

“Would you want to come in? I’ve cleaned up a little bit since I got here. I’ve been looking for some of her things, you know, toiletries and what not that I could bring her. It’s all been hard to find.” The woman walked inside, leaving the door open behind her, and Annie followed. 

It looked different with the lights on. Worse. Every surface, including the couch and the chair, had the kind of clutter that collects after too much time and abandon. It reminded Annie of how Frank’s apartment looked the first time he invited her upstairs. 

“I’m sorry, what’s your name? I didn’t ask before.” 

“Annie. I work with Vikki at the factory.”

“Nice to meet you, Annie. I’m Viviane, Vikki’s older sister.” 

She picked up magazines and books that had seemed to spread themselves out and piled them so they could sit. Annie couldn’t believe that she was older than Vikki, but she wasn’t entirely sure how old Vikki was. She couldn’t have been too far apart from herself in age. 

“Do you know where I might find her pajamas? In case she wants them?” 

Annie shook her head. 

“Why is she in the hospital? Did she swallow one?” 

Viviane’s head tilted, and her darkly drawn-on brows dropped. Annie put her fingers to her lips and started to pull the bottom one down a bit.

“I’m sorry?” Viviane asked. 

“A tooth, I mean.” 

“Oh,” Viviane said. “No. It’s a bit more serious than that, I’m afraid. Well, she went to the dentist this morning because of her teeth and terrible pain in her jaw. During the…” she shifted in her seat and stared at her hands, picking at the skin around her thumb nail. “During the examination, something happened with her jaw bone.”

“What bone?”

“The dentist, he was very beside himself when he called me. He sounded so—so frightened. Very upset. He promised he wasn’t squeezing or doing anything too hard, he said he’s always very gentle with his female patients. It fell apart, like chalk, he said. Such a strange thing to say about it, but he kept repeating that it felt like chalk snapping in his hand.”

“But--,” Annie whispered. 

Viviane looked up at her and smiled a little. 

“The doctors don’t know for certain, but they think it’s some kind of cancer in her bones. They have her at the hospital now and fixed it so she can sleep. It’s all she really wants to do, anyhow. You said you work with her?”


“Well, I don’t think she’ll be coming back, but please do tell the girls there where she is. I’m sure she’d love the company. Maybe give it a week or so, so she can get used to talking differently. The doctor said that will be difficult at first because she won’t be able to use parts of her jaw and teeth to press her tongue against. I never thought about that until he said it.” 

“Sure,” Annie said. 

Viviane kept the smile on her face while Annie sat on the couch, confused. 

“I should get back to the hospital, though. I’ll tell her you stopped by.”

“Oh.” Annie got up so fast that the corners of her vision started to grow shadows. “Please do, thank you. Let me know if she needs anything or if there’s anything I can do.” This all came out slower because Annie tried to say it without pressing her tongue against her bottom row of teeth.

Viviane seemed not to notice as she smiled and quickly nodded.  As Annie got up and buttoned her coat, Viviane stayed seated on the couch. Annie could see a tiny drop of blood coming from her thumb’s nailbed. She walked toward the door, wanting to get away as fast as possible without being obvious about it. She accidentally bumped her hip against an end table, and she made an unintentionally loud noise at the sharp pain that shot up from it. It didn’t matter, though. Viviane wasn’t paying attention. 


  Frank had a beer in his hand and an empty one at his feet. Annie’s stomach tightened, and she marched past him down the hallway into their bedroom. She took off her coat and dropped it on the floor. She felt dirty like she somehow tracked the grime from Vikki’s house back with her and it was spreading on her skin. She pictured tiny bugs in her hair and under her clothes, and she thought she could feel them crawling with their tiny legs and their tiny mouths making tiny holes in which to burrow. She undressed quickly, popping a stitch at her waist as she yanked the dress over her head. She stepped into the shower and turned it as hot as it would go, standing underneath the water until her hands turned viciously red and steam had filled the room. 

“Annie, can I talk to you?”

Annie screamed. She hadn’t heard Frank come in. She turned the water off and stood behind the curtain holding her arms up against her with her hands in fists underneath her chin. Frank pulled the curtain over, and his face went dark. 

“Jesus, Annie. What happened to your hip?” 

She looked down and saw the spot she had hit before. A large, dark red mark had already formed. It was so dark it looked brown. 

“I ran into a table. I didn’t even notice it.” 

He knelt down on the tile floor, grabbing the back of her thighs to bring her closer to him. 

“It looks like it hurt you,” he said, brushing his thumb over it. 

He looked up at her, and she put her hands on the top of his head. He bowed towards her again, pressing against her with his mouth. She stroked his hair, pulling strands between her fingers as he put his lips on it. He leaned back and grabbed her hand, kissed it before standing up, and pulled her into the bedroom. As she walked behind him, she saw the way his fingers were knotted and greasy with oil and how she liked the way they looked against her beet red skin. He turned out the light as she was staring at their hands, but she could still see them. She could still see hers. Her eyes needed no adjusting. There, faintly in the dark, she could still see how her hand held his. She could see how her knuckles bent and her fingers gripped against him. An iridescent light came out from her, illuminating her nails and the bones that raked the back of her hand. She could see herself. She was glowing from the inside now.

Mary Thorson is from Milwaukee, WI. She received her undergraduate degree in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and her MFA at Pacific University's low-residency program in Oregon. She has been previously published in Milwaukee Noir, Worcester Review, Tough, & Ink Stains Anthology. 

Her stories have been nominated for a Derringer Award and a Pushcart Prize. 

Monday, November 22, 2021

Mile 4, fiction by Ken Brosky

The man is only twenty feet back.

Jordan risks a look over his shoulder even though the snow is deep, even though his cross-country skis are no longer parallel, even though being off-balance could send him tumbling into the snow. He has to see. He has to know. His heart races in his chest, reverberating through the thick down of his jacket. Sweat from his forehead soaks into his winter hat. His breaths are caught by the scarf, wetting it, and the cold winter air fights back by freezing as moisture to the soft fabric.

He’s not on a ski trail anymore. 

And still, the man follows.

Think, he tells himself. In his head, his voice is calm; he’s anything but calm.

The forest of red pines is dead silent. Light from the full moon sneaks through the canopy, casting a blue polka-dot glow over the blankets of snow. Pine needles lay atop the undisturbed powder. Jordan has to turn his cross-country skis a few degrees to avoid one of the thousands of tall pines; he does this carefully. He can’t afford to trip and fall. He has to keep his distance. From his hunter.

But who is hunting him?

He thinks back to the start of the evening, after parking in the little lot and putting on his skis, after standing in front of the trail map and making a decision. Nordic Pines, 6 miles, hilly, intermediate skill. It had been a challenging six miles, great exercise, and he’d lost the sun about halfway through. Beautiful night skiing.

The man had been waiting for him at the end of the trail, where it snakes around a small log cabin-style warming lodge next to a parking lot at the entrance to Cathedral Pines State Forest. The man must have followed Jordan here. Must have seen Jordan put on his skis and make his way to the Nordic Pines trail. Must have waited the entire three hours for him to complete the loop.

The man had simply been standing where the trail turns into packed snow at the edge of the parking lot, empty because it was well past dusk and only Jordan would be stupid enough to ski at night, but it was such a beautiful evening that he couldn’t resist. He can never resist. These quiet, cold nights call to him. Temper his good instincts. Tempt him to set aside his caution.

The man. At least, Jordan thinks it’s a man. He’s wearing a heavy black coat, a pair of black snow pants, gloves, ski goggles, a black neck warmer, a black hat. No physical features, except for one crucial truth: Jordan has already skied 6 difficult miles, and this man has not.

He can feel it already in his hamstrings. In his shoulders, every time he digs a ski pole into the snow. In his throat, which complains about every icy breath that goes in. At first, he thought he could turn around and outrun the man. But no matter how fast he went, the man matched his speed. Trailing him like a shadow. 

Think! Jordan didn’t survive this long with luck. He’s always been a planner. He’s always carried extra hand warmers, an extra energy bar, a fully charged phone. All those things to ensure he could survive the unexpected on an evening ski run. Nothing useful now. Hand warmers and food he can’t reach without stopping, pulling off his fat mittens and reaching into his pocket. A phone he can’t use so deep in the woods.

 The memory of the man putting on his skis and stepping casually onto the ski trail directly ahead of Jordan … haunts his mind’s eye now. The deliberate action. The dead silence. The terrifying realization that hit Jordan immediately: this man was here for him.  

Even if he could have somehow taken his skis off, even if he--pushing fifty now--could have somehow gotten past the man, he knew without a doubt that his car had already been sabotaged.

So he made the only decision that might save his life: he turned back onto the Nordic Pines trail. At first, the man followed at a distance, and Jordan felt a surge of adrenaline--the man can’t ski well--but then the man grew closer and closer. At mile 4, Jordan broke off from the trail. Into the woods, east, back toward the town of Lakewood. Come out of the forest right at the edge of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket. Still, open another two hours. Plenty of people around. You don’t follow someone to an empty forest if you’re willing to kill him in public. 

You don’t do it at night.


Every time he inhales, the air attacks the wet scarf. Every exhale, his warm breath tries to thaw the ice that’s begun to form. And despite the exertion, although he seems to be gulping oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide at the rate of a marathon runner … his scarf has begun to freeze.

He knows you. The words ring in Jordan’s head with each hiss of the skis. He. Knows. You. He. Knows. You.

His triceps bear the brunt of the pole work now, giving his sore shoulders a reprieve. Where the snow is deepest, the poles stab down through soft cotton. When he shifts his weight, the skis sink an extra few inches (thunk-thunk-thunk), and his leg muscles burn from the exertion. He imagines himself a nordic soldier, fleeing a contingent of Russians. He wonders why the man hasn’t shot him in the back yet. Surely the man has a gun.

And a thought occurs to Jordan: what if his pursuer hasn’t planned this out?

He risks another glance over his shoulder. The man is still behind him, no more than twenty feet. Has he closed the distance at all? Maybe a little. Taking his time. A morbid, humiliating chase, the kind of thing that belongs in an episode of Fargo, not real life. This isn’t how you take someone out. Jordan knows.

His tongue feels like sandpaper. He has a water bottle in his pocket, but grabbing for it would mean stopping or continuing skiing with one pole for balance. Both bad options. If it gets worse … if it comes down to it, he’ll take the risk. But not yet. Not until he absolutely needs it. 

Not until he reaches the Crossroads.

When did he make the mistake? He’s been so careful. Fifteen years now. Fifteen years since he moved to the little north Wisconsin town of Wentworth and purchased the go-kart track with cold, hard cash. Safe, because Jordan did his homework on the owner. Knew the owner could write off the loss on the business--which clearly hadn’t been operating for at least two years, judging by the weeds growing in the cracked asphalt and the wasp nests inside the old Michelin truck tires stacked like bumpers along the sides of the track. 

The attached mini-golf course was a total loss. But the track only needed a few thousand dollars worth of repairs. The carts? Jordan fixed those little gas-guzzlers himself. He paid on credit, got it open the following spring, and a trickle of customers showed up. A few locals, some families visiting relatives--mostly parents and grandparents who lived in one-story homes around Maiden Lake. Jordan was careful with the daily sales. Only laundered a few hundred dollars a week in the spring. Then, in the summer, it was a few hundred dollars a day. Cash hidden under the floorboards of his house. When the economy was good, “sales” went up. When the economy was bad, he let the go-kart business suffer along with it. He never made a suspicious deposit.

Something he did recently, then. Something that raised a red flag somewhere. But what? The only time he spent cash was when he went golfing at the local country club, because a round of 18 with a cart was a little less than a hundred dollars; paying with a hundred-dollar bill was entirely normal. He snowmobiled in the winter with a group of assholes who were almost as dirty and skeezy as the people he knew in his old life. But he didn’t get drunk. He’s never gotten drunk out here--a small price for the peace of mind of knowing you never spilled your secrets after that second pitcher of Miller Lite. Jordan had always been a loud, obnoxious drunk anyway. And the snowmobilers had a few AA members so splitting a pot of boiling hot coffee after three hours of tooling around wasn’t suspicious.

What then? How did this bastard find him?

Ice forms on the tips of Jordan’s eyelashes, making them heavy. He can’t help it: he looks over his shoulder again. The man is definitely closer now. Jordan feels his weight shift precipitously when his left ski sinks deeper into the snow than he was expecting. His heart leaps out of his chest; the only thing that keeps him from losing his balance entirely is his left ski pole held like a brace by the sore muscles in his left shoulder. His clavicle screams in pain. He has to keep moving. Can’t change his pace.  The snow is thicker here, where a wind has slipped into the forest and created drifts. His skis disappear under the powder. The ends of his poles sink deep. Can’t slow down.

“What do you want!” he shouts. In one of the tall pines ahead, a snow-white owl takes flight, soaring low over the undisturbed snow between the pines.

Silence. Only the rhythmic squeak of waxed skis through dry snow.

Jordan has to turn to make his way around a copse of oaks. They grow close together where the earth dimples. Their gnarled, arthritic limbs twist in every direction, reaching out at violent angles. He has to be aware of his direction. He has to go around the oaks, try to get back on a path bearing due-east. 

He has to get to the Crossroads.

An interaction, maybe. Something he said to someone in town, maybe got repeated on Facebook or some other social media network, was somehow seen by the wrong person. Six degrees of separation and all that. Lots of Chicago and Milwaukee transplants up here in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, especially during the summer. It’s not hard to imagine someone might know someone who has a passing affiliation with Juan or Cam, Jordan’s old crew.

His mind reels through the years of interactions. Close calls. Tense moments. It’s hard to get in trouble in a little shit town like Lakewood unless you’re looking for it, or you’re drunk at a bar. Much harder, though, to keep your secrets. How many times over the years has he come close to letting a little bit slip, just for the thrill of seeing the look on a person’s face? A surly teenage cashier at the supermarket. A nasty comment from a barfly. That damn group of white boys who hang out at the custard stand all summer and blast rap music and pretend they’re “hardcore.”

I robbed an armored truck.

It’s not just to see their faces change. It’s the rush of confession. It’s the confidence that comes with knowing you got away with it. No need to say how easy the robbery actually was. No need to go into any detail about the meticulous planning that went into it. Just that one sentence, sitting on the tip of Jordan’s tongue more times than he can count. 

Did he utter it, ever, even once? Did he mention some random robbery in passing, act strange about it? Joke about it with his golfing buddies?

No. No, he’s been so careful.

What about the other part?

What about the murder?

“Tell me what you want,” Jordan huffs out. His scarf is solid. Ice rubs against his chapped lips. The forest has grown denser, darker; he has to regularly turn, adjust his mental compass, try to turn back in the same direction. 

He looks over his shoulder.

The man--if it is a man--has closed the gap another five feet. Only two car lengths away now. The man is not breathing heavily. There’s no doubt now that he could catch up to Jordan if he really wanted. This realization calms Jordan. He knows now the man is tiring Jordan out. 

But what the man doesn’t realize is that he’s running out of time.

Just a few hundred yards ahead, Jordan can see where the forest thins out. Where old power lines run north to south.

The Crossroads.

There were victims. There was the company, Algenon Armored, although their insurance covers losses. So there’s the insurance company, too. And of course, Juan’s unsuspecting coworker who was driving the armored vehicle when a car crash--planned by Jordan at the perfect intersection--made it easy for Juan to recommend the best detour down a side street that led to the Milwaukee River. Just as they’d planned it, the armored truck blew a flat, and Juan’s partner pulled over. The third player in the operation, Cam, was parked nearby. Juan broke protocol by getting out of the vehicle to check the flat. Cam put the empty gun to Juan’s head, forced the driver out, made them both load up his car with cash. The car turned right at the intersection of Fifth and Academy Drive. This was where their plan was ingenious: transfer the money to Jordan’s car. Cam had no criminal record. No registered gun. By the time the police caught up to him, he was clean. Juan sat for questioning and swore in an affidavit that Cam wasn’t the gunman, that the getaway car looked similar but definitely newer. Contradicted his terrified partner. Cam was released.

The trio stayed quiet. The money sat in the trunk of Jordan’s car, in his garage.

Next to a bag full of clothes and documentation for a new identity.

“Cam?” he calls out. “Cam, that you? Finally find me after all these years?”

No answer from the man. 

Jordan laughs, coughs out cold air. “I never planned to kill you, Cam. I knew you could keep your mouth shut!”

No answer.

But Jordan is getting closer. He can see the worn trail of snow a hundred feet ahead. No trees in his path. Just a straight shot now and a prayer.

“I hid it,” Jordan had told Juan when it was time to divvy up the money.

Juan was angry. That wasn’t part of the plan. Not their plan, at least.

“There were some break-ins,” Jordan explained. “All over my neighborhood.”

Juan seemed to relax in the passenger’s seat. They were driving to the south side of Milwaukee, windows down because the AC in Jordan’s car was broken. Juan started talking about his daughter’s violin lessons, how this money would ensure he never has another fight with the little hellion about the cost again. No more skipping a couple weeks while he reloads his bank account. That’s the problem with a crew: they can’t wait to spend the money. Raise suspicion. Get people talking. And when people start talking, that’s when police close in.

“Cam’s meeting us?” Jordan had asked. He remembers his voice sounding hoarse. Guilty.

“Yeah. He’ll be a little late. Said we should just hold up for him.”

Not part of the plan. They were supposed to drive together to get the money. Jordan took First Avenue to Milwaukee’s harbor district. Along the Milwaukee River, where condos were springing up like invasive weeds. Still a few old, empty factories. An old concrete batch plant, their destination. Juan would have been pensive, except he knew Jordan’s life story.

What better place to hide the money than in the foreclosed building of the family business?

Jordan maneuvered the car around an old chain link fence surrounding the building. He parked in the shade of the steel cement bin. Just ahead was a large building where Jordan had spent his entire childhood running around the offices and high-fiving his father’s employees. 

The lock appeared broken. Jordan feigned surprise. Juan cursed and hurried inside. 

Jordan didn’t waste time. Didn’t want Juan to know the pain of betrayal.

One bullet to the back of the head. No warning. No chance for Juan to make peace with his God. No closure. No explanation. 

The Crossroads are quiet. A yellow sign warns skiers of snowmobiles. A perpendicular sign warns snowmobilers of skiers. The snow is packed down, groomed by snowmobile treads. Jordan turns north. Skiing immediately becomes easier. He can use his triceps to stab with the poles, giving his left shoulder a rest.

Rescue comes even faster than he could have hoped. A pair of yellow lights up ahead, rounding a corner, heading their way. Snowmobilers. Witnesses.

“Hey!” he screams. He doesn’t care how close his hunter is now. Doesn’t care about over-exerting himself. He skis as quickly as he can, waving one pole every few feet. His heart hammers his chest. His scarf slips, his cheeks flush against the bitter cold. He tries to call out again, but all he can manage is a raspy cough. 

The snowmobiles slow. 

“A thousand dollars if you take me into town,” he tells the lead snowmobiler, who’s bundled even heavier than Jordan’s faceless pursuer. The snowmobiler lifts up the visor on his helmet. He’s about to ask Jordan if he’s serious but Jordan is already awkwardly swinging one leg over the seat. “Go go go!”

And you couldn’t ask for a more perfect response. Whether the man believes Jordan or not, he’s going to take the chance. Jordan’s hunter is standing next to the yellow sign warning snowmobilers of crossing skiers. Ahead is a trail of groomed snow that snakes northeast and crosses through the town of Wentworth. And it looks like they’re going to make it.

Then a pop. The snowmobile slows. Jordan smells smoke. His rescuer utters a curse inside the helmet.

Another pop. To his right, Jordan watches the other snowmobile pass. But the rider is slumped over the handles, and the snowmobile drifts gently to the right, coming to a stop ten feet away.

Jordan lifts himself off the seat. The other rider raises his hands. Words are lost inside his helmet, but they have the obvious cadence of fear and pleading. It doesn’t help. Jordan’s hunter shoots him, too. Fast and callous, unthinking, the same way Jordan killed his partner in crime.

As the body collapses beside the snowmobile, Jordan notices a price tag hanging from the snowmobiler’s heavy blue jacket. He recognizes it because it’s the exact same price tag that was on his mittens.

And now Jordan realizes his mistake: the outdoor sports shop in Wentworth. He’d been there in the fall, shopping for mittens, the same ones he’s wearing now. There had been a woman from the local paper there, interviewing the shop owner about the financial impact of COVID-19, how the owner and his wife had stayed afloat by taking out a second mortgage, maxing out their credit cards. 

Jordan had empathized with the owner. During the Great Recession, he’d watched his father’s business fall apart. He’d watched his family peel away like scaling concrete. First, his father’s sobriety. Then his mother’s patience. Then his uncle’s sanity. 

And he’d stood there as the journalist took photos of the business, lost in those hard memories because the Great Recession had taken everything from him. Forgetting entirely that she’d taken a photo of him standing there next to the glove rack, his face entirely visible.

“Cam,” he says.

But the killer doesn’t answer. Doesn’t move. The gun is steady in his gloved hand. 

“You recognized me after all these years,” Jordan says. He forces a weak smile. He can’t raise his arms because of the screaming pain in his shoulders. He feels a stinging numbness run through his chest. Tight. Hot. He’s having a heart attack, maybe. Maybe he can convince the killer he’s going to die here anyway. 

“Let me go. I’ll give you the money.”

No answer. The snowmobiles’ engines have shut off, leaving them in dead silence. Clouds roll across the sky. The moon disappears. The darkness grows thicker. Jordan’s beating heart hurts.

“I have more money now. I’ll give you your cut, plus interest. How’s that sound?”

No answer. The man’s ski goggles reflect the moon as it reappears. The snow glows blue again, except where the two snowmobilers’ blood stains it like inkblots. Jordan took a lot of inkblot tests after his family fell apart. Testing his sanity. Analyzing his mental competence. But inkblots don’t measure the impact of watching your family business go bankrupt. Inkblots can’t assess the pain you feel when everything your family has worked for disappears and the guilt that consumes you in knowing how selfish that pain is when the people you love are suffering even more.

“At least tell me who you are,” he begs.

The killer doesn’t answer. Instead, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a card. He flicks it at Jordan. It spins in the air, lands next to the dead snowmobiler. Jordan reaches down to grab it. He recognizes it immediately.

His old driver’s license. With his real name. 

“Who are you?”

But the killer doesn’t answer. And Jordan sees the plan now in its entirety, so ironically ingenious: two dead bodies and a skier with a fake identity.

“At least tell me who you are!”

But the man doesn’t answer. And maybe it’s not a man at all. Because Cam never knew Jordan’s real name. Only Juan knew.

“You’re his daughter,” Jordan says. He wants her to say yes, to tell him about the pain he’s caused her and how good it feels to finally catch him. An explanation. Closure.

 But the figure doesn’t answer. And Jordan knows this is the ending he deserves. 

Ken Brosky's stories have been published in Mystery Weekly and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery magazine. His first novel, The Beyond, will be published in spring 2022. He loves woodworking and Nine Inch Nails.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Late Pickup at Sonny's Icehouse, fiction by Scott Von Doviak

Chuck Melville managed to stay out of trouble for six months following his release from the Texas state prison in Huntsville. That’s what folks would say later while passing the syrup at the Waffle House, although it would be more accurate to point out that Chuck got into a great deal of trouble during those six months—he just managed to evade the attention of law enforcement while he was doing it.

That lucky streak ended on a sticky August night in 1974 when Chuck pulled into the shopping plaza parking lot at North and Hutchison and spotted Gary Malloy getting out of his Ford F250. It was Gary who got Chuck sent to Huntsville in the first place, or at least that’s how Chuck saw it. The way he told it to his lawyer, it was Gary who beat the Sac ‘n Pac cashier with a tire iron while Chuck helped himself to the contents of the register. But when the judge read the verdict, it was Chuck who got a five-year stretch in Huntsville for aggravated assault, while Gary got away with six months in the county jail.

Watching Gary make his way from his truck to Discount Liquors, Chuck figured his old pal could use a lesson in aggravated assault. He hit the gas, and the Magnum V8 engine under the hood of the 1970 Dodge Challenger jumped to life. Gary heard it and glanced back over his shoulder, and Chuck saw his eyes go wide as the Grand Canyon just before he managed to dive out of the way. The plate-glass window bearing the Discount Liquors logo and the neatly arranged displays of cut-rate gin and bourbon behind it all exploded at once as Chuck plowed through the storefront.

Chuck shook it off and threw it into reverse as Discount Liquors proprietor Rob “Rooster” McElroy charged at him, arms waving, face redder than sunset. Chuck skidded and slammed into a VW Beetle, crumpling the hood like tissue paper. He glimpsed Gary hot-footing it back to his truck and slammed on the gas pedal again, forgetting he was still in reverse. He pancaked the Beetle into the Olds 88 parked behind it, shifted into forward gear, and clipped Rooster just as he’d reached the passenger side door. He heard Rooster holler and saw him roll to the pavement clutching his ankle in the rear-view. 

He’d missed his shot. Gary’s truck was already squealing out of the lot, heading west on Hutchison. At least he’d put a scare into his old pal. He spotted a frantic woman screaming into the pay phone in front of the check-cashing place and decided he’d shop for his liquor elsewhere. He pulled the Challenger out of the lot and drove it like he stole it. Technically, he did steal it, but that was another story. 


Chuck headed south until he crossed the county line. He was thirsty and remembered a place somewhere out on Route 46 where he could wet his whistle and maybe hustle up a game of pool. The trees thinned out ahead, and he spotted the neon beer signs. It was nearly midnight, and Sonny’s Icehouse was hopping.

The Challenger’s tires crunched over the gravel and bottlecaps that made up the parking lot. He found a place to park around back, which was perfect since he didn’t want the Challenger attracting undue attention. The events at the shopping plaza earlier might have made the radio news by now.

Once upon a time in Texas, icehouses had been just that—places where you could pick up blocks of ice to keep your food from spoiling in the days before home refrigeration. Having all that ice on hand made them the coolest places in town to hang out, and the proprietors soon realized they could keep beer nice and cold, too. Sonny’s typified the modern Texas icehouse: a dozen or so picnic tables outside, crowded with happy drinkers laughing and whooping it up; a jukebox inside playing Jerry Reed’s “Lord, Mr. Ford”; a couple of cowboys shooting pool and a bunch more crowded around watching; a jar of pickled eggs on the bar. Most surprising of all to Chuck, an attractive woman seated alone at the bar, unbothered by anyone.

Chuck pretended to study the jukebox selections, but his eyes kept wandering over to that woman. She was blonde, probably not naturally, and looked to be about thirty years old. She wore cutoff dungaree shorts and a tank top that barely restrained the gifts God had given her. She had a pack of Virginia Slims sitting on the bar in front of her, one of which she was smoking. She took an occasional sip from a bottle of Lone Star. A bar full of men, all of them ignoring her.

Chuck put a nickel in the jukebox and selected Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” He considered it to be his theme song. He walked over and leaned on the bar next to the woman, playing it cool, signaling to the barkeep. 

“Lone Star longneck,” he said. 

The man nodded and set a cold one in front of him. “Fifty cents.”

Chuck set a dollar on the bar. “Might as well give me another. This one ain’t gonna last.”

True to his word, Chuck chugged down half the bottle in one go. Licking his lips, he turned his attention to the woman next to him. “Maybe you can help me understand something.”

“Maybe I can,” she said, lighting another smoke.

“How is it that such a gorgeous woman as yourself can sit here alone at the bar, and not one of these red-blooded Texans in here even seems to know you’re alive?”

“Oh, they know I’m alive. Only reason they ain’t drooling all over me like you is they’re afraid of my husband.”

Chuck laughed. “Perks of being from out of town, I guess. I don’t know your husband, and I damn sure ain’t afraid of him.”

The woman looked him over. “Well, that’s a refreshing change. What’s your name, stranger?”

“Charles Melville III. But you can call me Chuck.”

“I’d rather call you Charles, honestly.”

“That’ll work. And your name is…?”

“Gwen Harlan. See, everyone else in here knows that.”

“And now I know it. Buy you another round, Gwen?”

“I was hoping.”

He did so, and they clinked bottles and drank.

“So what do you do, Charles?”

“Well now, that is a complicated question.”

“Didn’t sound complicated when it left my lips, but I guess we’re just getting to know each other.”

“What I mean is, I had a job. Working at a car wash. I quit it this morning. Had a little disagreement with my boss. He was under the impression that I had stolen some quarters out of the ashtray of this Buick station wagon while I was vacuuming it. Now, we’re talking about maybe six to eight quarters, so that’s two dollars at most. How the hell am I gonna risk losing my job over a lousy two bucks?”

“But it sounds like you did lose it.”

“No, ma’am. Like I said, I quit that job. Just the very suggestion that I would do such a thing was too much for me to bear. And anyway, I could tell he was gearing up to fire me, and no way was I gonna give him the satisfaction. Turns out it was the best thing I could have done because I ran into an old associate of mine this afternoon, and we discussed a new business opportunity.”

Chuck didn’t feel it was the right moment to mention that the associate in question was also a former inmate of the state prison in Huntsville. The particulars of the business opportunity were criminal in nature, and Chuck and his friend had discussed them while snorting crank and shooting at empty beer cans. Nor did Chuck think the time was right to disclose that he’d later tried to run over another old associate of his. Maybe once they’d gotten to know each other a little better.

“So where is this husband of yours everyone is so scared of?” he said by way of changing the subject. “You expecting him tonight?”

“No, he’s working the night shift.”

The overhead fluorescents flashed, signaling last call. “So that means your place is free for the rest of the evening?”

She looked him over again: his bushy muttonchop sideburns, his prominent chin, the gleam of a gold tooth in his smile. She’d seen worse. “You’ve got a lot of confidence, Charles.”

“I’m a man who knows what he likes. And what I’d like right now is to get a six-pack to go, take you out to my car, and drive you back to your place. At that point, we can just see where the night takes us.”

“My car is here.”

“And I’m sure it will be safe here until the morning. But I’ve got a Dodge Challenger out there, and you would not believe what that baby can do on these back roads.”

“Charles, I think you talked me into it.”


When Gwen climbed into the passenger seat, her foot hit an object on the floorboard. She picked it up. “What do we have here?”

“That’s my Saturday night special,” said Chuck. He’d been using the .25 semi-automatic pistol for target practice earlier in the day, after which he’d stuffed it under the passenger seat. He figured it must have gotten kicked loose while he was barrel-assing around the shopping plaza parking lot. “Why don’t you be a doll and stuff that back under your seat for me.”

She squinted and aimed the pistol toward Sonny’s front door. “Next one out is a dead man.”

“Come on, now. That ain’t funny.”

She shrugged and stuffed the gun back under her seat. “I thought it was.”

Chuck started the car. “Which way we headed?”

“Turn right out of the parking lot and show me what this thing can do.”

Chuck cracked open a Lone Star and peeled out of the lot. He gunned it when he hit the blacktop, and ten seconds later, the speedometer hit 80. It was a winding Hill Country road, and the car hugged every turn. 

“It straightens out up here for a couple miles,” said Gwen, sipping her beer. “Bet you can’t hit 120.”

“Shit, I can get ‘er to 130 without breaking a sweat.”

The engine revved and the speedometer climbed. The stars hung low in the Texas night sky, zipping by like comets. Gwen ran her fingers along Chuck’s leg. The Challenger hit 120 as it squealed past the police cruiser hidden by a mesquite tree just off the road.

Gwen spotted the red and blue flashing lights in her side-view mirror first. “Better hit it or quit it.”

Chuck had no intention of quitting it. He pushed the tachometer into the red as the Challenger hit 130 miles per hour. Whatever their pursuer had under the hood, there was no way he could catch them. Except the stretch of straightaway had come to an end, and the road started winding again. At 80, Chuck could still hug the curves. At 130, no chance. “Keep it between the ditches,” his Daddy always told him, the golden rule. The Challenger spun out as Chuck hit the brakes and did three full donuts before leaving the road entirely.

The car came to a rest gently enough under the circumstances. Chuck surveyed their surroundings. Running wasn’t an option, as the wide-open plain they found themselves in afforded no cover. The cruiser rolled to a stop behind them.

“You just let me handle this,” said Chuck. Gwen turned her head and stared out the passenger-side window.

The beam of a flashlight filled Chuck’s window. The cop knocked, and Chuck rolled it down.

“License and registration, please.”

Chuck handed them over. The cop examined them for a moment. “Now, you’ll have to help me out here, sir. Your driver’s license says Charles Melville, but this here vehicle is registered to a Dean Melville.”

“He’s my cousin.”

“Does he know you have his car?”

“He’ll figure it out.” 

The cop leaned down and peered into the car. As Chuck’s eyes adjusted, he could see he was dealing with a sheriff’s deputy. He had a calm demeanor and an ingratiating smile, as if they were just neighbors chatting over a fence. His nametag read “Harlan,” and that sounded familiar.

“This woman in the car with you,” said Deputy Harlan. “Is that your wife?”

“Nothing so formal as that,” said Chuck.

“Ma’am, I’m going to need to see your face.”

Gwen turned to face the deputy and gave a little wave.

“See, this is exactly what I thought,” said Deputy Harlan. “She couldn’t be your wife, because she’s my wife.”

“Gwen Harlan,” Chuck muttered.

“That’s right. And I’m Beau Harlan.”

“Listen, deputy, this is all a misunderstanding. She didn’t say nothin’ about being married.”

“No, I believe I did,” said Gwen. “I distinctly remember telling you that no one else in that bar was talking to me because they’re all afraid of my husband.”

“I’m going to have to ask both of you to step out of the vehicle now.”

“Deputy, I think we can settle this up real simple,” said Chuck. “Why don’t you just take her with you, and I’ll be on my way? After all, I was simply giving the woman a ride home with no bad intentions, and now there’s no need for me to do that.”

“Get out of the car. Now.”

Chuck sighed, pushed open his door, and climbed out.

“Put your hands on the hood and spread your legs, please.”

Chuck complied. “Listen, I’m gonna be completely straight with you. I am on probation. Anything you could do in the way of letting me off with a warning would be greatly appreciated.”

Deputy Harlan patted him down. “I guess I don’t even need to ask if you’ve been drinking tonight, judging from the empty containers in your vehicle. Well, your cousin’s vehicle, I mean to say.”


Chuck and the deputy both looked in the direction of the outburst. Both saw Gwen standing there, holding Chuck’s Saturday night special, but Deputy Harlan didn’t see her for long. She squeezed off three shots. The deputy stumbled backward, his face transformed into a mask of shock. He touched his chest, and his hand came away covered in blood. He collapsed to the ground.

“Holy shit!” said Chuck. “Are you crazy?” He knelt down to confirm what he already knew. The deputy was gone. “Jesus Christ. I mean, yeah, you got us out of our immediate predicament, but this is really bad. He must have called in the license plate before he got out of his car, searching for wants and warrants and what-have-yous.”

“Your cousin’s license plate.”

“Well, yeah. I see what you’re saying, but it’s not going to take long for anyone investigating this here crime to learn that you and I were together at Sonny’s Icehouse tonight and that we left together. Maybe even an eyewitness saw us leaving in this car.”

“Stand up, Charles. I need you to explain something to me.”

Chuck did as she asked, nice and slow. “What is it, dollface?”

“Two questions. First, is my husband dead?”

“Oh yes. He’s really most sincerely dead.”

“Second question. How could you kill my husband like that? In cold blood?” She pointed the gun at him.

“Now, let’s think about this, Gwen. I get what’s going through your head. You want to pin this on me, and that makes sense from your point of view. That is my gun, although I should tell you it is not a registered weapon. I bought it at a flea market, paid cash. But here’s the most important thing. If you shoot me with the same gun that killed your husband, well, it’s not gonna take Columbo to figure out you’re the one who pulled the trigger on both of us.”

“Step away from my husband’s body.”

Chuck did so. Gwen took a few steps toward the corpse. 

“What’s the plan here, Gwen?”

“What you say is true. I can’t shoot you with this gun. But if I shoot you with my husband’s gun, it looks like you shot each other. And I’ll just be the grieving widow they find on the scene. I’ll tell them how you made me leave Sonny’s with you at gunpoint. How you drove like a maniac with me as your terrified prisoner. It’s all gonna work out for me.”

“It does sound that way, except for one minor detail,” he said as she leaned down beside her dead husband. He watched as she reached for his holster and found it empty. He raised Deputy Harlan’s .38 and took aim. “You see, I already liberated this from your husband while I was checking his vitals. Not that I knew right away what you had planned. I ain’t that clever. But seeing what you had just done to your husband did make me kinda wonder what you’d do to a man you just met tonight.”

Gwen stood up, hands raised. “Now, listen, Charles. We can work this out another way. We can get back in your car and drive all the way to Mexico.”

“No, I don’t believe that will work. Like I said, this car is already burnt. He called in the plates, so if we try to cross the border, they’ll have the number and we’ll be in cuffs. Here’s how I see it. They’re gonna find you and your husband here, both shot dead with separate guns. Some kind of lovers’ quarrel, who knows. They’ll find his patrol car, they’ll find both guns on the scene, but I’ll be gone.”

“You’re not going to kill me, Charles.” She turned and started running back toward the road.

Chuck didn’t want to shoot her in the back, but the way he saw it, she hadn’t left him much choice. He kept squeezing the trigger until the gun had nothing left.


It was three a.m. by the time Chuck pulled the Challenger into his cousin Dean’s driveway. He knocked on the door, and a bleary-eyed Dean answered.

“I brought your car back.”

“Why the fuck did you take it in the first place?”

Chuck lit a cigarette. “For one thing, you made it too easy for me. I came by to see if you wanted to get breakfast. Your front door was unlocked, and the car keys were on the kitchen table.”

“That’s not really an answer.” 

“No, it’s not,” said Chuck, tapping ash onto the driveway. He stared at the Challenger for a long moment. “This car is everything I dreamed on when I was locked up. I mean, not this one in particular. Just the idea of it. That I was gonna get out of prison, and I was gonna be a free man. With a cool car. Picking up hot chicks in bars. And I wasn’t ever gonna do anything to get myself locked up again.”

“How’s that going?”

        “Well, I’ll tell ya. This is a fast car, cousin. Just not fast enough for me to outrun myself.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Chuck. And I’m tired.”

“Here they come.” Chuck pointed down the road to the flashing lights on the horizon.

“They’re coming for you?”

“Yeah. Afraid they might take your car, too. You’ll get her back, though. I’ve got no stomach for another trial. I’ll tell them everything I did, and that you had nothing to do with any of it.”

“What did you do, Chuck?”

Chuck ground his cigarette under his heel as the police cruiser pulled in behind the Challenger. “When you do get her back, take good care of her. Don’t take her for granted. Good car like this needs a good man behind the wheel.”

He got down on his knees and laced his fingers behind his head as the cops came up the driveway.

Scott Von Doviak's Charlesgate Confidential (Hard Case Crime) was named one of the top ten crime novels of 2018 by the Wall Street Journal. He is the author of three nonfiction books on film and television and a regular contributor to the Onion's AV Club. His short fiction has appeared in Mystery Weekly and Shotgun Honey. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

You Lie in a Grave Alone, fiction by Rob D. Smith

Kay Pulaski nudged the old man in the shoulder. They sat in his gray Chevrolet Silverado in the Quik-Stop parking lot. “What about the big blue one?”

“By pump three?” asked Eddie Morrison. “Yeah, she might do. Good eye.”

The blue truck jacked up an extra ten inches on thick off-road wheels had the right stickers on the windows. The red Ruger hawk circular decal, a Don’t Tread on Me snake cut in pieces, and the rebel flag stacked over an American flag in black. Shiny tool lockbox in the bed of the pickup. The whole blue truck gleamed with polish. Even the tires had a high sheen to them.

“Ain’t no work truck. It’s a show truck for some wannabe. Wannabes have low self-esteem. Need lots of toys to compensate. Let me know when you see him.”

Kay nodded. She knew everything he said. Old man just liked to hear his thoughts out loud. She didn’t get crusty about it. She liked his voice. Black coffee, bourbon, and age had given it the right gravelly effect. Repetition only engrained his lessons.

“Wannabe five o’clock.”

Morrison perked up and watched a tall man with wavy blond hair and potbelly under one of those shiny golf shirts come walking across the asphalt towards pump three. A giant Styrofoam cup full of soda sweating in his hand. His skinny legs had a lot of room in his blousy slacks to strut. Big expensive sunglasses with polarized blue lenses. 

“I should buy you those glasses.”

Morrison touched the arm of his cheap aviators. “Mine work fine and if I flatten them with my bony ass, I ain’t out three hundred dollars.”

The wannabe hitched himself up into his F-150. He almost spilled his drink but caught it at the last second. Pushed the lid back on and licked his fingers clean. His door shut, he checked his hair in the rearview mirror and started the truck. Bah-room. Bah-room.

Morrison chuckled. “This guy must have the smallest dick in the county.”

“Or think he does.” Kay wouldn’t mind a cold soft drink right now. Dr. Pepper, maybe. Morrison didn’t believe in air-conditioning. Made you soft.

“True. The mind can be a powerful ally or your worst enemy.” He popped his tongue. “You really should be writing down these words of wisdom.”

She tapped her forehead. “I keep them gems all safe up here.”

“I ain’t going to be around forever, is all.” He coughed and spat out his window.

“Are you going to around long enough to drive because the wannabe is pulling out of the lot while you learn me a thing or two?”

He laughed. “Couldn’t lose this peacocking wannabe with my eyes closed.”

He followed after the blue truck in his Silverado at a pace not too fast and not too slow. Just like he did everything else in his life. Kay found herself emulating him ever since they met outside a Dollar Tree where he noticed her shoplifting. He was a piece of work four years ago, and he was a piece of work now. And he wouldn’t be around forever. A lesson learned before she met Morrison. At least, he was honest with her.

They caught up to the big blue truck a little way down busy Shelbyville Road. It was halfway through rush hour in Louisville, and this was a busy vein of traffic. Wannabe took a right onto Hubbards Lane without a turn signal. They went about a mile and crossed some train tracks, getting caught at a stoplight before crossing Westport Road. 

Wannabe in the blue truck drove aggressively fast, oblivious to being followed. No one but the occasional paranoid individual believes they are being followed. Kay had begun to recognize other people on the hunt like her and Morrison. Certain drivers with hunter eyes pursuing weak marks not paying attention to their surroundings. She wasn’t sure how recognizing shared traits with these predators made her feel, but she felt a butterfly flap in her stomach.

“Jesus,” said Morrison as the blue truck took a sharp left without slowing down onto Hillside Lane. It was so abrupt he had to continue down Hubbards before turning around and coming back. 

“We’ll spot that peacock.”

“Unless he’s pulled into a garage.”

“Negative thoughts…” He started.

“Bring negative action.” She tapped her forehead. “Told you I got them all written down in here.”

“I reckon you do.” He slowed their truck as they came to a two-way veer. “Right is the path of virtue. Left is the path of darkness.”

She pointed left, and Morrison drove accordingly. This road was called Twinbrook. Maybe there was a brook nearby, but she didn’t hear any running water out her window. The houses here were well kept made in the seventies ranch and tri-levels. Lawns were well-manicured, most by lawn services. The houses were not luxury but this land location was. 

Kay craned her neck, checking every driveway on her right side.  “I could get out and walk around if you want.”

“Patience. We ain’t even seen every house yet.” When they suddenly came to an unmarked dead end. “Shit.”

She grabbed the door handle, ready to get out. He shook his head. “Guess we can find another fish back at the convenient store.”

Morrison drove into the last house at the dead end’s driveway to turn around, and when he did, she caught a flash of blue. She slapped the dashboard. “There it is.”

The end of the chrome bumper stuck out from the corner of the orange brick ranch house. He continued his turning around and they both took in the house in their rearview mirror. He sighed. “It’s good but not a lot of places to sit and watch. Lot of nosy neighbors and only one exit.”

She said, “It’s a quiet dead end with little traffic. I like it.”

“Well, you’ll be the one going in, so I guess we’ll try it.” He pulled over on the side of the road. “We’ll watch a little before we leave. Give me one of those Big Reds.”

She reached behind the extended cab of their pickup, fishing a Big Red out of the small cooler. He thanked her, and as he drank the red soda, he choked on a cough. He covered his mouth with an old paper towel from the seat. He caught her observing him. “Put them eagle eyes on the house girly.”

She did as he asked and settled in for a little reconnaissance. The constant cough of her mentor distracting her but not stopping her from their task.


They had gotten back to Morrison’s house after seven o’clock in the evening after grabbing some burgers on the way home. It was cloudy but still a little balmy. They ate on the sun-worn picnic table in his backyard. He drank another Big Red. Built like a man-sized hummingbird, she guessed he needed all the sugar water he could consume in a day. He didn’t touch his food, not even the salty fries. She had four sliders with cheese and devoured all of them.

Between sips, he said, “We’ll take what we get tomorrow to Stussy on Friday.”

“Assuming we get anything.”

“Minimum, I’m guessing at least two Glock’s, an AR-15. Lots of ammo.” He finished his burgers, wadded up the wrappers, and threw them in the bag.

She had already finished her sliders and took his bag with hers to the outdoor garbage can. When she came back, he was stretching a little. “Stussy planning to lowball you again?”

“Good business, ain’t it. Screw the working man. Pass costs onto the consumers. Learned those economic tidbits working in Tillman’s factory all those years.”

“But we’ll make enough, right?”

“Nothing is ever enough, but we’ll be fine.” He leaned a hand on her thick shoulder. “I’m going inside. Want to watch me yell at the jackasses on the Wheel of Fortune?”

She shook no. “Going to draw some then turn in early.”

“Smart.” He was at the concrete porch steps. “You’ll say no for the hundredth time, but do you want to sleep in my spare room tonight? Awful humid out.”

Another shake of her head. “I’m good.”

He nodded with a little smile and opened his door to go inside. “Goodnight.”


She went back to the concrete cinder block garage painted white. On the right side, there was a door in the rear leading to a small room off the main garage. It connected to the two-car bay with an interior door. There was one window. Once inside, she got a small fan, opened the window, and stuck it carefully in the frame facing to blow the hot air out. She flipped it on and then got another bigger box fan to cool her space.

A few nine by twelve-inch sheets of drawing paper with her manga sketches were taped to the wall. A big couch with a University of Kentucky blanket took up the majority of the little room. She kept soft drinks and water cool inside a mini-fridge Morrison had bought her. A small table in the corner she fashioned into her drawing desk. She had a cheap Chromebook from Walmart she watched shows on and used for online stuff. She knew the bed in the house would be more comfortable, but she didn’t feel right sleeping in his dead son’s room. 

Kevin went off to serve a tour in the Army. Morrison said he was excited for his big adventures overseas. He was always a patriotic kid growing up. Morrison’s wife was already gone, and he would be lonely, but he was proud his son was leaving for a higher purpose. Kevin never made it out of boot camp. He had an undiagnosed heart condition and died while on a training hike.

Morrison had taken an early retirement not soon after from Tillman Electric. He couldn’t stand to be around people anymore. All the inane conversation and gossip. The empty work on the line of bolt-in your piece then pulled a cord. His pension was just enough for him to get by till it wasn’t. That’s when he became an outlaw entrepreneur. 

He was over seventy now. Strength and stamina slipping every year. It’s why he brought her into the fold. Their chance meeting at the Dollar Tree was a sign from above, he said. The diminutive old cuss felt her bicep, and she almost cold-cocked him. Said she was as broad as his late son. An offer to make more money than shoplifting. She thought it was a sex thing and reared back her fist.

He backed up with hands raised and laughed out an apology. She let him buy her lunch at the closest McDonalds. At a table in the rear of the restaurant, away from prying ears, he gave her his recruitment pitch. Come steal guns with him, and he would cut her in for half of what he made selling them to his buyer. She nodded her head when she dipped her last French fry in ketchup. A partnership was born.

At first, he just used her as a tool, but it grew deeper for both of them. An offering of her to stay in the house fell flat but she asked if the room at the rear of the garage was available. Their symbiotic relationship was beneficial. Kay was a good listener, and he had over seventy years of lessons he needed to unfurl one conversation at a time. Neither one shared their secrets.

She sat down on the couch and opened her drawing pad. There was an opened letter for Eddie Morrison inside. She had taken the envelope when she was in his kitchen last week. A pile of mail on the table, but this one was all by its lonesome. He was always going on about paying attention to signs and intuition. Her gut told her to take the letter. It was already open, and she planned on returning it, but every night since she had taken it out and reread it.

It was a past-due bill from Lutheran’s East Hospital on blood work and other medical exams. The total was outrageous. His Medicaid paid for a small percentage, but the rest was to be paid by the patient. The tests the doctors ran were for lung carcinoma. She had looked the word up online. The answer she found troubled her.

She put the letter back in the envelope and tucked it between the pages of her sketchbook. She picked up her worn Sharpie marker and would draw big-eyed warrior women fighting giant robots till her mind got drifty enough. She would then turn in for the night, hoping for sweatless dreams and not hot nightmares about her friend’s suffering.


They were sitting up the way on Hillside Lane a few houses up from the veer onto Twinbrook Road, waiting at 6:30 in the morning. Last night they had seen Mrs. Wannabe come home an hour after her husband in a white Ford Explorer. A young girl got out of the car too in a soccer uniform. They waited for a couple of more hours with no other vehicles pulling up. Kay pulled her walking routine and went around the neighborhood a couple of times to get a feel on foot. 

A little after 8:00 am, they were sitting in a truck listening to a story on NPR about some strange disease affecting local birds, and people should stop feeding them till it subsided when she heard the thick growl of the big truck’s engine. Morrison had his head down like he was sleeping, but she saw a slight grin. 

The blue truck didn’t even slow down at the stop sign and blew past their spot on Hillside. Kay saw his wet hair as he went by, mouthing the words to some song she couldn’t hear.

Morrison said, “The rooster has left the coop. Just need Mama hen and the baby chick out now.”

“What if she doesn’t work till later or at all? We should have watched the place for a couple of days like we usually do.” She plucked at the cracking rubber seal on the passenger window.

“If we see anything hinky, we’ll call it off. Trying to be efficient. Running out of time before we have to meet Stussy.”

“Then we back the meet off a day or two. We got plenty of time.”

“I’m doing it today!” he said, cutting her off. He reached across her and opened her door. “You can get out if you don’t trust me anymore.”

Kay was stunned. He had never had a short word with her or been physically aggressive. Maybe gruff but never angry. She got hot herself and slammed the door shut. She folded her arms across her chest but bit her tongue. Her eyes became small slits hiding the furnace inside. A furnace fired by anger but also largely from the shame she had let down her mentor.

He sputtered an apology right away. “Shouldn’t have barked. Your instincts are right. We should watch the house a couple of days, but I want to sell as many guns to Stussy as we can.”

“Are you short money?”

He picked his Styrofoam coffee cup out of the holder. “No. Nothing. I just got a feeling time is slipping away.”

“We get caught stealing, and time will seem as long as a coffin.”

He about spat his coffee out laughing. Still sore, she asked, “What’s so funny?”

“I must be rubbing off on you. You don’t talk no teenager.”

She grinned. “I talk like you.”

She was about to continue their argument when the wife’s white SUV came to a stop at Twinbrook and Hillside. She pointed at her. Morrison clucked his tongue. “I see Mama hen. You see the baby chick?”

The SUV pulled past them, and Kay saw a blond ponytail in the passenger seat. “Yeah, they’re both in the car.”

He checked his watch. “We’ll give them fifteen minutes in case someone forgot something.”

They had been waiting for over an hour already. This neighborhood should all be rousing and getting ready for the working day like their marks were. The fifteen minutes made her anxious for the task at hand. Breaking into a person’s home was an act of faith. To her, it was like walking on the moon not knowing when your air would run out. She enjoyed the sensation. Morrison had ruined her for mundane jobs like waitressing or teaching. 

“Okay, time to make our money.”

Kay got out of the truck and zipped up her white painter coveralls while checking to see if anyone was watching. Next, she pulled the magnetic signs from behind her seat, attached one to the outside of her door, then crossed over to the driver’s side door and attached the other one. Colson Pest Control with an upside-down roach. The roach was supposed to be dead but, it could be sleeping as far as Kay could tell. These signs were from Morrison’s son’s old job before he left for the Army. He left an old spray bottle and his work coveralls. 

Morrison wore the old coveralls even though it was a size and a half too big. The baggy material swallowed him up, but Kay never laughed at him out of respect for his late son Kevin. She got back in the truck and they made leisurely for the house. He said, “What happens if I call you on the phone while you’re inside?”

“I haul ass out the backyard through the house behind’s yard until I reach Elmwood. Follow that to North Hubbard Lane and hide till you pick me up.”

“Right. You ain’t fast, so don’t waste time. Drop everything and git.”

“I might be fast. We’ve never tested my sprint time.”

He laughed. “Girly, I think the world of you. You’re back is as strong as any boy I know, but you’re a Clydesdale, not a thoroughbred.”

They reached the house where the wannabe parked his truck yesterday. Morrison parked in front of a big fir tree, which almost blocked the view of the house. They noticed a doorbell camera on yesterday’s recon. He wanted to stay out of view, so it didn’t ping their phones. Most people got tired of checking their phone apps all the time and finding birds or UPS delivery men. Still, they never took the chance unless they disabled the camera first. The large tree the dumb wannabe had planted negated the goal of his security camera.

 Now, if the neighbors just kept to themselves, they could get on with their business. They had never really had any issues. Once a woman came over to ask how what they were spraying for hunting for gossip. By the time she left, Morrison had given her a quote on how much to spray the nosy woman’s house. It’s funny what you can get away with by wearing some coveralls and a little signage. Service people become as invisible as the elderly.

Kay put on a hat matching her coveralls and got out. He waggled his flip phone across the seat at her. “Is your phone on vibrate?”

“Yes, boss.” 

“Okay sassafras, I’ll just let the cops sneak up on you.”

“I got it set. Just buzz for the fuzz.” She held up her cheap smartphone then slammed the door. In the bed of the pickup, she got out a large empty rucksack and slung it around her shoulders. A white one-gallon pesticide pump sprayer with a longneck nozzle came out next. Nothing but water inside but a great prop to fool anyone watching.

As she passed by his open window, he said, “Be careful, Kay. Trust your gut and everything will be frosty.”

She nodded and went to work as a fake Colson Pest Control associate. She started by spraying the corner of the house, walking through some flower beds carefully avoiding the doorbell camera’s range. Working slowly along the foundation as she went down the incline to the rear of the house. She peeked around the corner, and didn’t witness any security cameras. A  couple of steps and she crossed the paved driveway to the basement garage with two bay doors. The regular entry door for people was locked. She peeked in the window and didn’t see any cars.

There were a couple of ways to gain entry into a house. If there were no obvious home security system or services, she could break a window and get in. She could also pick the locks, which worked but took a little time. And then there was the garage door entry. She set down her spray bottle, took off her rucksack, and set it on the driveway. Rucksack unzipped, she took out a bent coat hanger wire and straightened it. There was also a small block of wood.

She wedged the wood between the rubber seal and the upper part of the garage door, opening a seam. She took the wire hanger and looked through the window at the garage door safety release mechanism. Bent the hanger a little, then threaded it through the seam at the top. She fished for a couple of seconds, and hooked the safety release latch. She pulled, and the tension went out of the door. She yanked the hanger out, removed the wedge, and tested the garage door. It glided up easily.

Once inside, she shut the garage door and set her fake pesticide spray bottle on the smooth floor by the smaller exterior door. She unlocked it in case she had to bolt. There was an interior door to the house with a couple of wooden steps and a handrail. She took a look around the garage but doubted there were any guns stored out here. The interior door was unlocked, and she gained entry into a small foyer with steps upstairs to her left and an open floor den to her right.

The short nap beige carpeted floor had a large L-shaped couch in front of a gigantic widescreen television mounted on the wall, complete with an extensive sound system around and below it. There was a bar on the back wall behind the couch. Another smaller flat-screen TV was behind the bar. Plenty of bourbon bottles. A lot of sports memorabilia on the wall. This was the wannabe’s man cave. She felt a little sorry for the wife and daughter already.

There was an open door to the left of the plush couch. She went over, flipped the light switch, and looked inside. An office-type setup with a good-sized cherry wood desk and dark leather desk chair. Some gaudy plaques on the wall read Salesman of the Quarter for the years 2015 to 2017. A small bookshelf with a lot of unopened books and some big work-related binders. On his desk was a small crystal pyramid engraved with Salesman of the Year 2017. The giant peacock’s name was Frank LeRoy. 

She smiled when she saw the tall pewter gray gun safe in the corner. A GoodLock Security Company model. She tugged on the three-prong handle to see if he had left it unlocked. The heavy-gauge steel safe was shut tight. No pry bar would work. They never forced entry into a gun safe. Morrison taught her one trick and one trick only. 

The circular twelve-digit keypad electronic lock was eye level on the door. Ninety-five percent of all safe makers have a default security code for the locks. Once the owner buys it, they add the combination they want to use. But you have to delete the old security code, or it will still open the safe. The code was always six digits and always one through six. Kay entered the sequence on the keypad. Click. The handle spun freely in her hands, and the safe revealed its contents.

A modified Ruger AR-556 like Morrison guessed. A black Mossberg pump twelve-gauge shotgun with a pistol grip. There were three boxes of shotgun shells stacked at the bottom on top of a 1,000-round case of .223 Remington 56 grain. She was going to have to call Morrison to back the truck down. She was strong, but this would be an awkward carry.

On a top shelf, she found a pink framed 9mm Glock 43. No way this was Frank LeRoy’s pistol. He must have got it for his wife but stored it in here. There was a couple of twenty-round box of 9mm ammo. She expected another handgun but it was likely he was carrying it in his truck cab. What was unexpected was the fifty-round box of .357 magnum hollow points. The revolver taking that type of ammunition wasn’t in the safe. Upstairs in the bedroom, she bet.

She got the rifles and pistol into her bag with the three boxes of handgun ammo. Zipped the ruck up and carried it over into the garage by the exit door. The heavy box of rifle ammo she placed next to her bag. She was going to call Morrison, but the lure of the .357 Magnum was too much. Those guns could cost $1,200 and up. Stussy might pay two grand for it. She put her phone back in her pocket and went up the stairs.

Left was the kitchen and right turned into a quaint living room. Natural light came in from the window, and she navigated the house easily to the master bedroom. A king-size platform bed with a cream-colored bedspread dominated the room. Men usually slept on the right side of the bed for some reason, so Kay sat down on the bed and checked the table. Inside the drawer was a stainless steel .357 revolver with Ruger Redhawk stamped on its frame. As she was checking to see if it was loaded, her phone buzzed in her pocket.

She jumped up and looked out the bedroom window. She couldn’t see Morrison’s truck behind the big tree, but she didn’t see any police cars either. She answered her phone. “Are you okay?

He said, “What I wanted to know myself. You’ve been in there too long.”

“I’m done now, but you’re going to need to back down to the garage.”

“Okay, girly. On my way.” He ended their call.

She made for the garage skipping every other step down the stairs. She had the back door of the garage open before he backed around the corner. He didn’t get out to help her. She shrugged the box of rifle ammo up and into his truck bed. Slid it under a heavy sheet of canvas. The rucksack filled with the guns and other ammo went under there as well. She got into the passenger side of the truck, and he hit the gas. They were out of the neighborhood and onto Hubbards Lane before she realized she had the hefty revolver inside her coveralls.

When she pulled it out, he whistled, “That’s a beaut.”

“Figure Stussy will try to cheat you down, but it was worth the extra digging for it.”

He coughed. “You did great girly. Damn fine…” His coughing took over, and they didn’t speak again until he got it under control. Both acted like nothing was wrong.


Kay inked the arm on her latest drawing. A warrior woman in mid-swing with a laser katana held in a cybernetic arm. She heard some cussing coming from the backyard. Sounded like Morrison, but what could he be angry at? She stopped drawing and went out into the dusky evening to investigate. Careful to open and close her door to keep out the insects.

She found him messing with one of his bird feeders. He had about four feeders. Birds were like his television some days. Just sit at the window in the dining room and see what pretty, hungry birds showed up. She thought he also got a kick out of bedeviling the squirrels with all the baffles he attached to keep the bushy-tailed rodents from the birdseed. Two feeders were already detached and set on the picnic table. He cussed again while trying to undo some twisted wire.

“Why are you taking down your bird feeders?”

“You heard the story on the radio. Don’t want to watch any sick bird suffering.”

She came over and held the bird feeder so he could find the knot in the wire. “They said not to feed them anymore. The birds will be back when they ain’t sick no more.”

“Less things I got to take care of the better. I’m…”

“…not going to be around forever,” she finished. 

He looked like he might pop his cork, but he just let out a little puff of air. “But it’s true girly. You better be making plans for when I’m gone. You got a lot of future to live. Going to be an outlaw or something respectable?”

He got the wire undone, and she carried the bird feeder over to the picnic table with the others. “Maybe I want to be a respectable outlaw.”

He chuckled. “Think I keep you around for that smart mouth instead of your strong back.”

They went to work on the fourth hanging bird feeder. “I probably should think more about the future, but I’m happy doing jobs with you.”

“You’ve been a great partner. You have, but I want something better for you when I’m gone. Something stable so you can have your own family.”

She mulled on this for a bit while they unclipped the feeder from its hanger. “Except for you, I prefer to be alone.”

“You’ll lie in a grave alone. While you’re above ground, it’s best to surround yourself with friends or family.”

“I don’t have any family.”

“And I don’t anymore. But when I did, it was glorious. Best times of my life. I don’t want you to deprive yourself, Kay. You need to have a life not hang around here helping an old man steal guns.”

She saw her chance to change the subject. “Spoke with Stussy a little bit ago. Primed the pump with the Magnum we got. Bet he pays extra for it.”

He took out a rag and mopped his brow. “Should give us some walking around money with all the guns and ammo. Get you some new markers to draw them crazy women you like.”

She stretched the garden house out and turned on the faucet. Flecks of debris, old seed shells, and bird poop flew off the feeders from the water pressure. He stood with his hands on his hips looked like he was trying to catch his breath. Kay focused on her task and cleaned off the last feeder. She shut off the faucet and came back to his side.

“I’ll let them dry off, then hang in the garage. Unless you want me to toss them?”

“Nah, do like you said. Maybe we’ll have a big yard sale soon. Clear out some of my crap and make some money off some suckers.”

“A yard sale? Sure, we might as well cut out Stussy and just start selling guns in the front yard. Why yes, Miss Wayley, I think a brown gun stock brings out the blue in your eyes.” She started to laugh.

“Four bullets for five dollars or the whole box for fifty.” His laugh turned into a cough, and soon, he was doubled over. Spit some thick phlegm onto the grass. She came over and put a hand on his back.

He tried to speak. Coughed some more, then shook his head. He finally got some space to talk. “I’m heading in. Too much silliness for this old codger. See you in the morning.”

She let him go in without any more words or protest. She noticed the glob of phlegm had some blood in it. Back in her room, she knew she wouldn’t finish inking the arm on her warrior. The envelope with Morrison’s doctor bill waited for her to read for the umpteenth before she went to sleep.


Stussy parked his dark green van near the middle of the Home Depot parking lot. Not too far away from Chik-fil-A restaurant with a packed drive-thru breakfast line. A perfect wholesome Americana spot to sell stolen guns. Morrison pulled nose to nose with the van. Stussy had his ugly hat pulled down over his face and looked asleep. Maybe he had slept here last night. In all their exchanges they had never beaten him to the meet.

Both their truck doors slamming roused him from his slumber. He shifted his hat back into place, recognized them, and gave a two-finger salute. He didn’t get out, so they came over to his window. “Morning. What’s happening with my two favorite entrepreneurs?”

Morrison said, “Can’t complain.”

She just shrugged. And after Stussy realized he wasn’t going to get much more conversation, he got down to business. “Okay, tough crowd. Bring your stuff to the back of the van.”

Morrison followed her to the back of his truck. She undid the tailgate and hefted one used Army rucksack around her shoulders. She picked up the other in her strong right grip and stepped back as he shut the tailgate. She walked calmly and deliberately, so she didn’t drop anything and didn’t draw attention to herself. As far as anyone could tell they were just blue-collar workers exchanging some tools in a hardware superstore parking lot. No one had ever approached them before, and no one ever would. Welcome to the invisible society of outlaws.

Stussy had his van swing doors open and was sitting on the end waiting. “Okay, sports fans. Let’s see what we’ve got.”

Kay slid the two rucksacks next to each other on the van floor, making sure to slide them deep enough for cover. She stepped back and kept an eye on the parking just in case a stray lookie-loo or go-getter police officer showed up. Morrison unzipped both rucksacks and spread them open. She heard a whistle from Stussy as he saw the guns and ammo. His business style amused her. He never could hide his delight or disappointment in what they had; hence he never came from a good bargaining position. Morrison would never wiggle on price anyway. 

He counted their inventory. “Great haul guys, but where’s that Magnum you were bragging about Kay?”

Morrison hacked a little. “I decided to keep that one.”

“That’s going to take twelve hundred off the top.” Stussy zipped the bags back up. 

“Twelve hundred?” stammered Kay. “Sell him the damn pistol.”

Morrison held up a palm to her. “It’s not here. Maybe I’ll sell it sometime later.”

“I didn’t do all that work for…”

“Enough!” He cut her off. The bark caused him to wheeze into a coughing spell.

Stussy zipped up the bags. “You all right, Eddie?”

Kay put a hand on Morrison’s shoulder. “He’s fine. We’re all fine.”

“If you say so.” He tipped his ugly cap back. It was bright purple with some orange tiger stripes. He said it was his disguise. People would never be able to describe his face because the hat distracted them. Wasn’t a bad idea.

He shrugged her hand off his shoulder. “Ain’t got time to put on a show this morning. Got stuff to do.”

Stussy held up his hands in surrender. He reached into the van and brought out a crumpled white Chik-fil-A bag. He opened it and pulled twelve hundred out for the missing Magnum. Handing the bag to Morrison, he said, “Here are your chicken biscuits.” 

Morrison unfolded the bag and looked inside. Satisfied, he resealed the bag and made for his truck. “See you later, Stussy.”

“You don’t need any extra ruck bags?” They usually exchanged full bags for empties afterward.

Kay hung back and called to Morrison. “I’ll get them.” 

He waved a hand and continued to his truck cab. She waited for him to get out of earshot and asked, “Do you have the pills I asked for last night?”

“One thing at a time, little lady.” He was getting a couple of empty ruck bags out of the van first. After handing her the bags, he took a white pill bottle out of his pocket and shook them. “Like I promised.”

She handed him some folded bills in the amount he told her. Just as they were trading, she looked up and saw Morrison watching them from his seat in his truck through the van’s interior. Old man was slipping in almost every category but vision. His eyes turned to slit, and she felt her cheeks flush. Nothing like the shame of getting caught.

She told Stussy bye, and he crawled back in his van, ugly hat and all. She loped back to the truck dreading the ride home. Still, she got into the passenger’s side. Buckled up and stayed quiet. She felt him looking at her, then he started his truck up and backed out. They made it out of the parking lot and to the second light on Hurstbourne Lane before he spoke.

“I thought you were smarter.”

“Than what?”

“Don’t insult me. You want to get high and mess up your life. Wait till I’m good and gone.”

“They ain’t for me.” She leaned into her door.

“Oh, you’re a real outlaw. Going to sell it on the street.” His gravelly voice rose. This red light was taking forever to turn green.

“Just don’t.”

He roared. “Lie to yourself, but don’t lie to me!”

She screamed as loud as her frustration would let her. All the secrets burning the furnace inside her. No words just baying. She fumbled for the door handle and fell out of the car. Her knees bounced on the asphalt. She got up and slammed the door shut. His face caught in an oh-shit moment. The light turned green.

He said, “Get back in the truck girly.”

She crossed in front of his truck to the median. He pleaded with her to get back in the truck. Someone behind them honked at the busy intersection. His eyes flashed with anger again.

“Last time girly. Get in the truck.” His voice started to break

She bawled, “Leave me alone.”

He set his chin high, but a coughing fit came on and stole his pride. His truck pulled away with his jagged coughing ringing in her ear.


Kay had gotten to the house an hour or so later dripping with sweat. She spent her time backpacking all her belongings up in two gym bags she had gotten from the sporting goods store on the clearance table. They were garish red and purple. All her clothes were in one bag. Her Chromebook, markers, drawing pads, and shoes were in the other bag. A roll of a little over two thousand dollars was stuffed in one shoe. She sat on the picnic table between them, holding Morrison’s envelope she had swiped. 

She left the bags but carried the envelope with her to the back door. A peek through the window showed him sitting at his kitchen table with a cup of coffee. She knocked like she usually did, then opened the door and entered. He gave her a half-grin, and she sat down across from him. She put the envelope onto the table between them.

He placed a finger on the envelope and slid it to his side. “You don’t have to say anything.”

“I think we both have some things we need to say.”

“I’m sorry I got heated. Those pills? I just want what’s best for you, girly.”

“Because you won’t be around forever?”

He nodded, trying to avoid her gaze. Balancing the corners of the envelope with his fingers, he said, “I wasn’t blowing smoke.”

She saw his mug was empty. “I know why you didn’t sell the Magnum to Stussy this morning.”

“I always liked the .357’s. Feels like the proper gun for men like me.”

She took the mug and went to the coffee pot refilling it. Back at the table, she set it in front of him, and he thanked her.

“My Daddy had a gun. Ivory grip revolver. Ivory was likely imitation but it was pretty.” She slowly sat back down. “He had a lot of guns mostly rifles, but that shiny pistol was his favorite.”

He put his hand over hers. “Kay honey, you don’t have…”

“Mom went missing a couple of years before you met me. Left work and never made it home one day. Police searched for her but no leads. Dad assumed the worst. I felt back then maybe she chose to leave us. Leave me.”

“Did they ever find her?”

“Never did. Dad blamed himself. Stopped taking care of himself. I tried my best. Then one day, I came home from school and found him. His favorite pistol dangling from his stiff fingers.”

“Ah, girly.”

“I won’t ask you to fight the cancer. It’s yours. You deal with it how you want. But I would ask one thing.” She reached in her pocket. The bottle of painkillers rattled when she set them on the table. “Don’t use the pistol.”

Tears welled up in the old man’s eyes. He got up, and she met him halfway in an embrace. “I tried to teach you girly. To give you all I know.”

“You did it. I’ll be okay.” She didn’t cry. She wouldn’t let herself.

He finally let loose of her. “What will you do?”

“Everything.” She smiled and walked to the door.

He said, “Where will you go?”

She opened the door wide. “Everywhere.”

He heard her call behind her as she closed the door. “That’s my Kay.”

Rob D. Smith is just a common man attempting to write uncommon fiction in Louisville, KY. His work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Thriller Magazine, Revelations, and several other crime, horror, and speculative anthologies and online magazines. Follow him on Twitter @RobSmith3.