Monday, June 13, 2022

Watchkeeper, fiction by Mike McHone

 I stop the boat seven or eight miles out into Lake Erie, hoist him off the deck, toss him over the side and watch him sink by the moon’s light . His face stares at me from behind my eyes. 

     I shove my hand into my pocket and bring out the watch. The engraving on the back is impossible to see, but I trace it with my thumb, feel it in my blood, and know what it says. 

     Lieutenant Bradley James Michaelson.


    My cellphone rang. I looked at the caller ID. It was Gina, and I knew it was bad news but didn’t know just how bad. “Hello?” 



     “It’s your father. He’s…” She didn’t finish. She didn’t need to.

     I swallowed through the knot in my throat. “What happened?”     

     “Someone broke into his house and shot him. His neighbor, a Mr. Hungerford found him.”

     A vision came to me of Earl Hungerford’s jowly face. The man always looked old, even when I was young.  Like my father, he was a strong man, born in the 40s and put together different than the men that came after.

     “He saw the backdoor to your dad’s place had been kicked in. He went in, and he… found him in the living room.”

     I stood on the patio and watched my son and his friends splash in the pool. Strung up on the privacy fence along the rear side of our property at the other end of the pool was the bright red and silver banner, HAPPY 12TH BIRTHDAY, STEVEN!

     “Bill? You still there?”

     “Yeah, I’ll…” I looked at my watch. It was five pm. The party just started. Parents of my son’s friends milled about, sipped beer, ate hot dogs. Dad told me—not but a day ago, for Christ’s sake—he’d be there between five and six. I looked at my wife on the other side of the pool, standing at the grill cooking hot dogs and hamburgers, sipping a Pepsi. “I’ll head over,” I told Gina. “You still at the house?”

     “Yes,” she said. “I’ll wait for you.”

     “Give me twenty minutes.” HAPPY 12TH BIRTHDAY, STEVEN! 

     “Take as long as you need,” she said.

     I hung up and carried myself over to Darlene. It was more of a reflex than anything. She pulled the Pepsi away from her lips. “What?” 


     I changed into a pair of dress slacks and a polo. I was at Dad’s house in less than ten minutes. 

     Gina stood on the porch. I passed her and went inside. Two faceless deputies stood in the foyer and offered condolences I don’t remember. 

     I entered the living room. You’re a cop. Not a son. This isn’t your dad’s house —it’s a scene. This is work. Do your job.

     He was in his chair with the Detroit Free Press open in his lap to the sports section. The TV was on and playing at full volume, and his hearing aids were on the side table next to him. I looked at the entry wound at the side of his head, just above his temple. Small. Not much bigger than the width of my pinky. Low caliber. A .22, probably. A small rivulet of brownish-red ran down the other side of his face. It wasn’t gory. It wasn’t sickening. It was just… simple. Ordinary, I guess. Sad, even. It was—

     The watch.

     The watch his parents gave him when he graduated basic back in ‘61. 

     It was gone. 

     “Bill?” Gina called over the wail of the TV. “You okay?”

     I grabbed the remote from the table and turned off the TV. I set the remote back beside the hearing aids and looked at her, her brown eyes, full lips, smooth features. “You check upstairs?” I asked.

     “The dresser drawers were turned out, and the medicine cabinet’s been picked through,” she said.

     Junkies. “They wouldn’t find any cash,” I said. “Dad never kept cash in the house. Wouldn’t have found anything in the medicine cabinet either. Unless someone’s figured out a way to get high on Lipitor.” I looked back at the wrist. “The watch was all they got. We should maybe start…” I stopped. I was doing her job for her, but she was good enough to let it happen. “Is Hungerford next door?” I asked.

     “He is,” she said. 

     “You interview him?”

     “I did, but I told him you’d probably want to talk to him.” The sympathy in her eyes was a scalpel, and I felt like something you dissect in a biology class. I cleared my throat. “Talk to anyone else in the neighborhood?” 

     “I spoke to the couple across the street and the woman next to them. They didn’t see anything,” she said. “I called Ramirez and Morrison to help with interviews. They should be out here within the hour.”

     I walked past her for the second time that day.


     Earl Hungerford dabbed his eyes with a tissue. It was a cold, he said. He always caught a cold during the summer with all the pollen and cottonwood floating in the air. The shitty thing about summer colds is they linger around longer than a normal one, he said. “Can’t believe something like this happened on this block. I hope to hell you catch the son of a bitch that did it,” he told me. “And I hope they don’t go quietly, if you know what I mean.”

     His living room looked like my dad’s, old furniture, old carpet. Earl’s Purple Heart hung in a hand-crafted shadow box on the wall next to his cuckoo clock. He got it in Vietnam. My dad never had one. He saw action, of course, right off the coast of the Quang Tri Provence, but he was never wounded. 

     “I used to bust your old man’s balls all the time, you know that?” Earl told me from his couch. “Said, ‘You Navy boys were real nice to give us Army fellas a lift over there so we could do the fightin’ for you.’ Ha! He’d always tell me to go screw myself. ‘If I wanted, I coulda launched a missile at your fat ass while you’d try to hit me with that peashooter of yours,’ he’d say.” He smiled. “He didn’t take any shit. He was a good man. One of the best.”

     “You see anyone go over there today?”

     “Not today. Like I told the girl—what’s it, Troyer?” 

     “Moyer. Gina Moyer.”

     “Like I said to her, I didn’t see nothing.”

     “What about yesterday, any time throughout the week?”

     “No one,” he said. “Did the sons of bitches lift anything from your old man?” 

     “His watch.”

     He dabbed his eyes again and coughed into the tissue. “Aw, goddamn it. Bad enough to shoot the man, but to take his watch? Christ, you better find them, Billy. I mean it.” 

     “I know.”


     Gina, Ramirez, Morrison, and I interviewed people up and down the block. No one saw anything. I drove over to Kelley’s Bar, my dad’s usual hangout. I walked in, waited for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. An old woman with a shock of white hair and a face that looked like a thousand miles of bad road sat at the end of the bar with a glass of beer in her trembling hands.  

     Mick Bryant came out of the back with a case of Bud Light. He smiled when he saw me. “Bill!” He set the case on the bar. “What brings you by?”

     “My dad, Mick.”

     He must’ve seen it in my face. “What happened?”

     “Someone broke into his place, shot him.”

     He was as pale as an Irish Michigander could get. The only color about him was the yellowish tint in the whites of his eyes and a headful of black hair courtesy of Just For Men. When I told him the news, what little blood he had in his face vanished. “Jeez, that’s awful news. I’m sorry, bud. Anything you need, you let me know.”

     “Did you see or talk to him recently?”

     “Day… Let me think. Day before yesterday. He came in around noon, watched the Tigers game.”

     “Anyone with him?”

     “He didn’t have any company, but you know him, he talked to everybody that’d listen.”

     True. He never met a stranger. Sounded like a perfect line for an obituary.

     “You see him hang around anyone out of the ordinary?”

     “There was… Well, I mean, it’s…Well, shit, Bill. It’s kind of embarrassing.”


     “Ah, hell. He told me a couple months back that he… met a woman. Online.”

     He might as well had said the old man took a trip to Mars. “Like a dating site?”

     “No,” he said. “Not dating.”

     I started to ask, but then… “Oh.”


     “He say the woman’s name, what site it was?”

     “He didn’t tell me her name, but the website was”—he leaned over the bar and whispered the site name to me.

     “You got a pen?”

     He fished one out of his shirt pocket and handed it to me. I grabbed it and a cocktail napkin off the bar and wrote it down. “You sure that’s the website?”

     “Yeah, I’m the one who…” He cast a glance at the haggard woman sipping her drink, then back to me. “Look, I know that stuff ain’t exactly legal.” 

     “Don’t worry about it. You’re not in trouble.” I almost said a man has urges but didn’t. “You sure he never said the woman’s name?”

     “No. He just described her. Young, blonde, stacked. Guy had a type.”

     He did. I remembered the blonde in the Black Velvet poster that hung in our garage for years. Eventually, the sun faded the picture, and Dad swapped it out with a poster of Jayne Mansfield. I’m not sure when, but Jayne was eventually traded in for Kate Upton. At least Kate stayed with him until his death unlike my mother who divorced him in the mid-80s and passed away herself in the late-90s. But Mom was a redhead, so their time together was probably doomed from the start anyway.

     The weird thing was my father wasn’t a technical person. He used the laptop I bought him three years back to check baseball scores, email the VFW hall, and that was about it. He wouldn’t shop on Amazon or get groceries delivered because it was all “a bunch of gobbledygook technical bullshit” that he couldn’t figure out, so I asked Mick, “You help him set up his profile on this site?”

     “I did,” he said and gave me his username and password. I wrote them down and handed the pen back to him. My cellphone buzzed in my pocket. “Thanks for everything, Mick. I’ll call if I need anything else.” I headed for the door and pulled the phone out of my pocket. It was Darlene. “Hello?”

     “Are you okay?”


     “I just wanted to check.”

     I opened my car door. “The party still going on?”

     “Yeah, people are still here. We’re going to open the presents and have cake soon.”

     “I don’t know when I’ll be home.” And here’s where an argument would normally begin.

     “I figured,” she said. “I’ll put some hot dogs in the fridge for you. I’ll set some cake aside too.” It was the nicest she’d been to me in two years. I guess a murder can bring out the best in some people. 

     “You didn’t tell Stephen, did you?”

     “Of course not.”

     “Dumb question. I shouldn’t have—”

     “No, it’s—”

     “With everything going on…”

     “I didn’t tell him.”

     “He doesn’t need to know about it. Not now anyway… Let him have his day.” 

     And that was it. That’s what did it; thinking of my son at his birthday party, him oblivious to everything, having no clue what happened, brought out the tears. I guess I’d been flying on autopilot since Gina’s phone call, and I guess I finally crashed. Everything that’d built up over the past two hours (years?) boiled over.

     Darlene and I agreed we wouldn’t split up until a month or two after the party. We’d play it cool and bide our time until the divorce. My son’s life was about to change, even if his grandfather wasn’t dead. The guilt ate at me, but I deserved it. It was my fault. I was the one who chose to upend everything.

     I swallowed. “I gotta go,” I told Darlene. “I gotta get back to it.”

     I ended the call and threw the phone down onto the center console. I turned up the AC, fumbled with the radio, and tried to find a tolerable song  that wasn’t rap or top 40, but couldn’t find anything. I switched it off and swiped my palm over my face. I looked at myself in the rearview mirror. I told myself to knock it off.  

     I peered through the windshield and out the passenger and driver’s side windows, saw no one,  pulled out of the parking lot, and headed back across town to my dad’s house.


     MistyDDD was her name. There were six pictures total, each  showcasing Misty in various states of undress. There was Misty on her knees atop a bed, naked save for a pair of lace stockings. Misty in the bathtub, Misty at a beach, Misty bent over, bent forward, bent sideways. I guess you have to showcase the goods  from all possible angles if you want to make a sale. No different than a car or pair of shoes.  

     I looked through Dad’s messaging history and found more than a few emails between them. There were thirty-six, in fact. About a third of the messages were receipt confirmations for “Services Rendered.” They totaled just under ten grand. The messages from Misty were from a woman laying it on thick. oh baby i had such a wonderful time!!! love you sweetie!!! youre the best!!! 

     The messages sent to her from my father’s end were like preparations for a business meeting. Would Monday at seven pm work? Let me know by five today, otherwise I’ll have to reschedule. 

    of course baby!!! seven works 4 me!!! xoxoxox

    Sounds good. 

    It seemed as if the Holiday Inn near I-75 was their usual meeting place over the past year or so. The last time he and Ms. Triple D corresponded was two weeks prior. There was nothing recent.

     I hit the Compose Message button.

     I’d like to meet up ASAP at the usual place. When can we make that happen?

     I hit Send and closed the laptop. I sat on the couch and spied the rest of the living room, the old Quasar TV, the grandfather clock that had been in the same spot since 1972, the same end table, and the same carpet. The laptop seemed out of place. Then again, so did the splotches of blood on the recliner.

     An oil painting of General MacArthur’s return hung in the spot above the fireplace where the family portrait used to be. He bought that not long after my mother—


     Somebody came in through the backdoor. 

     I shot off the couch and walked to the kitchen. 

     A haggard figure stood there. A long beard hung down over a gray flannel. His filthy jeans were held up by what looked like a piece of rope. His face looked like a mixture of grease and liver spots. It was hard to tell where a liver spot ended and a smatter of grease began. I didn’t know who he was, but I’d seen him around town over the past couple years. He was just some bum I’d seen rooting through various trashcans throughout the city. 

     “What’s your business?” I demanded. 


     “I’m with the Sheriff’s Department, and this is a crime scene. What are you doing here?”

     He looked like a pile of rock dust in shoddy clothes, nothing more than a collection of grays, with his gray beard, grayish skin, dark gray flannel, and jeans so faded they looked like slate. 

     But there was one bit of color on him, the one thing that drew my eyes away from his gravel face. 

     The gold watch on his wrist. 

     He stammered. “I wuh-was just…”

     I pulled my sidearm and closed the distance between us in a little over a second. “Get your hands up! Now! Get them up!”

     His hands went up and he backed up to the wall like a frightened puppy, his face chiseled with fear.

     I pressed the gun barrel  against his forehead and grabbed his arm with my free hand. I brought his wrist within inches of my face and saw the Navy logo beneath the hands of the watch. “Where did you get that?” I screamed.

     He didn’t answer. 

     “Tell me!”


     “What were you doing here, huh? Trying to pick through more of my old man’s shit?”  

     “I just needed some money.”

     I couldn’t breathe. It felt like a hot coal burned in the center of my chest.  

     “I just came here cuz I need some money.”

     I heard Earl Hungerford’s voice in my head. 

     “That’s all, just some money. Just a little bit. Not much. Just a little bit.”

     I heard my blood. I heard it speak to me in tongues. 

     “I wasn’t hurtin’ nothin’,”

     I felt every nerve, every inch of my skin, every hair on my head, every cell, every…  

     “I wasn’t—”

     “You son of a bitch.”

     “I swear… Just a little bit…”

     “Son of a bitch!”


     The gun went off. 

     His legs went out from under him. He slid down the kitchen wall, a smear of red left in his wake. I watched the hole in the center of his forehead ooze a thin red line down his face, between his eyes, over his nose, his lips, his beard, the front of his flannel, into his lap, and I felt nothing. What had just happened meant nothing more to me than watching a strong breeze carry a dry leaf down an empty road.

     I breathed easy. A thin layer of frost coated my heart.

     I stood overtop him  looked down on him, and waited for my own body to move again, and after a moment, I bent down and slid the watch off his wrist.

     I looked once more at the logo of the U.S. Navy, at the hands under that glass, that watch face I’d seen countless times throughout my life. I clutched the watch and stared at it as if I were trying to hypnotize myself with it. 

     My fingertip brushed against… something… on the back of the watch. It felt like scratches, gouges, scrapes. 

     I turned it over.

     I looked.


     A name. 

     A name etched into the gold. 

     Lieutenant Bradley James Michaelson.

     Everything collapsed in the amount of time it took for the second hand to move one tick.

     The watch was not my father’s.


     I paced. 

     My legs ushered me from one end of the kitchen to the other.

     Say he attacked you. Yes, you came back here to check out a lead, you heard a noise, and… No… Damn it! Gina will know. She’ll be able to tell you’re lying. And if she can’t… The department could bring someone else in to investigate it… Yeah, you know all the tricks, all the traps, you’ve interrogated hundreds of people… But you make one mistake, one little screw-up, and they’re on you like a dog. You say one wrong word… Everything is over. Think! Come on! Think! You…

     I looked at the line of red, at the wall behind it, at the man, at the wrist, at the watch.

     You know what you have to do. Take care of it. Man up and get it done.

     I holstered my sidearm and shoved the watch into my pocket. I fetched some bleach, a rag, and some Lysol wipes from beneath the sink and went to work cleaning up all traces of him. I found some old bedsheets and blankets in the hall closet and rolled him up in them.  

     I went outside to see if he had a bicycle, moped, or, Christ forbid, a car. Nothing. I looked over at Earl’s property and saw his old Bonneville wasn’t parked in its usual spot in front of his garage. I got my car from out front, reversed it up the drive, and went back in the house. 

     I waited for night. It was eight o’clock. I opened the laptop and checked to see if Misty had responded to the message. She had not. I shut off the computer, turned on the television, grabbed a Pepsi from the fridge, and tried to act normal. 


     I peeked out the front window. The people across the street pulled into the driveway. They were a young couplewho looked to be in their 20s, and drove a Prius. “Oversize Matchbox car,” is what my dad called it. Earl’s Bonneville still wasn’t in his driveway. He…

     It was bingo night at the Knights of Columbus hall. I’d just remembered. He never missed a Saturday.

     I sat back down on the couch and watched a few minutes of some cop show. I looked at the recliner, at the blood, and smelled the faint scent of bleach in the air.

     Nine o’clock. The sun was down.    

     I lifted him off the floor, felt a muscle pull in my back, dragged him outside, opened my trunk, and put him in. I went to the basement, grabbed a few twenty-pounders from a weight set my dad owned along with some electrical wire and rope. There was a stack of boards on the floor and a half-built work bench that dad was in the middle of putting together. I fetched a hammer, three nails, and a small 2x4 and nailed the backdoor shut. It was a piss poor job that would’ve irritated the old man, but it was enough to keep it closed until I could get the doorframe fixed.

    I turned off the TV, shut off the lights, and went out front. I threw the weights, rope, and wire into the trunk, got into the driver’s seat, and headed to the harbor.


     One am. 

     I walk in and warm up a hot dog in the microwave and eat it over the sink, no mustard, no ketchup, and wash it down with a Coke. I don’t taste anything. I look out the window at the same moon that sat above me over the lake. 

     I see the watch face, the eagle, and the shield, in the circle of the moon. I tossed it after its owner before returning to the harbor. I see the water splash in my mind. I see the ripples spread and fade into the darkness.

     My cellphone vibrates. I look. It’s Gina again. “Hey.”

     “Sorry to call you so late,” she says, “but I wanted you to know we got a hit on your dad’s watch.”


     “I put a call earlier today to pawn shops in the area, told them to keep an eye out for it. The owner of Midport Pawn and Consignment called thirty minutes ago, said a guy and a young woman came in and tried to sell it.”


     “He told them he was going to draw up some paperwork in the back, he called the station, and officers were there in five minutes. The couple’s here at the station right now.”

     A thin line of red.

     “Do you want to come down?”


     “Would…” I clear my throat. “Would you mind taking this one?”

     “No,” she says, “of course, I don’t mind. You’ve had a day.”

     “Let him have his day.”  

     “You get some rest,” she says. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

     …at the man, at the wrist, at the watch…

     “Thank you, Gina. For everything. Good night.”


     I hang up and pass the master bedroom on the way to the room down the hall.


     The next morning, Gina calls and tells me MistyDDD, real name Lori Anne Diamond, and her boyfriend Jason Corman confessed to killing my father. Lori worked as an escort for a number of years and Corman acted as her security, the guy who’d wait outside the hotel room until her services were rendered. Corman also copped to being a heroin addict whose addiction has spiraled out of control as of late. He saw my old man as an easy hit and thought that because Dad had spent so much money on his meet-ups with Lori, there must’ve been some extra money or valuables lying around Dad’s place. Lori stated she didn’t want  my dad to get hurt (of course) and said she had nothing to do with killing him (of course), and it was all Corman’s doing.

     “Sorry to tell you this, Bill,” Gina says. “I know it’s heavy.”

     “At least they’re caught.”

     “Yeah,” she says. “Thank God.”


     Three days later, there’s a memorial service at the VFW hall for my father. Earl put it together. About a hundred people are there, some I recognize, some I don’t. After an hour, bottles of Guinness are handed out. “I want to make a toast,” Earl says. “Everybody, get your drinks up.”

     We raise our bottles.

     “To Noland Wilson, the kind of friend everyone deserves, the kind of man we all should hope to be.” 

     People shake their heads or utter a soft “Amen,” and take a sip.

     “And to all the departed soldiers. Let no one be forgotten. Salud!”

     I take a sip and choke it down. I never liked Guinness or beer at all, but it was my dad’s favorite.

     Chatter rises. People mingle. Stories are exchanged. I walk over to an easel by the entrance. On it is a piece of posterboard with photographs of my father taped to it. He’d spent many years volunteering through the VFW, and many of the pics are him helping out at events over the years. I look closely at a picture of him and some of the men he’d served with at the Vietnam memorial wall in D.C. There’s another of him at Arlington National Cemetery.

     Earl shuffles over to me. “Bill.”

     “Hi, Earl.”

     He nods at the board. “Jack put this together. Nice, eh?”

     “It is.”

     “Ever meet Jack Dorsey? He’s been with the VFW for years.”


     “He was a friend of your dad’s. Served in ‘Nam. Infantry. Hard as nails, that son of a bitch is.”

     Another photo of my dad at Arlington, near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

     “Where’s the little lady?”

     Another photo of my dad standing in front of the Capitol building.

     Probably with the guy she’s been fucking for the past two years. The reason I asked for the divorce. “She had to work,” I lie. “Parent-teacher conferences at school.”

     “Too bad she couldn’t make it.”


     Another of him and…

     Oh God.

     Another of him standing next to the gray man.

     The waves.

     I look closer at the photo. Both of them, outside the VFW building, shoulder to shoulder, smiling.

     “That’s Bradley,” Earl tells me, obviously seeing I’m interested in the photo.

     I pull myself away. I step back. I feel my blood move like wet concrete.

     “Good guy, Bradley is,” he says. “Homeless, like a number of vets. Your dad helped him out over the years, paid him to do odd jobs around his place, mow the lawn things like that.”

     “That’s all, just some money. Just a little bit. Not much. Just a little bit.”

     “Good guy,” Earl says. “Has his problems, PTSD and all that, but a good guy. I wish I knew where he was. I would’ve invited him to come down here. I think he would’ve like to come, maybe would’ve volunteered to say a few words, or… Bill…? Are you…?”

     I wipe the tears off my cheeks. 

     He leans close to me and whispers, “It’s okay. He was your old man.”

     That face, that stone face…

     “Sometimes, it’s… Well, it’s not easy, I guess…”

     I can’t stop seeing his face. 

     “Are you going to…?”

     Those eyes! God, those eyes!

     I can feel everyone stare at me, feel him stare at me, and I tell myself to stop crying, to pull it together for my father, to keep it together for my son, but I think of the house, my house, and the darkness, and the oil painting above the fireplace and I can’t. 

     I can’t.   

Mike McHone's work has appeared in Ellery Queen, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Mystery Tribune, Mystery Weekly, Guilty, Shotgun Honey, the AV Club, the Detroit News, and is forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. You can visit him online at


Thursday, June 9, 2022

JACKED, a review, by Rusty Barnes


Jacked: a crime fiction anthology

Editor: Vern Smith

Run Amok Books



Jacked is an anthology edited by Vern Smith,packed with the good stuff. It proves that crime fiction is in fine shape with these writers, as many of them have not published widely and are not on the same list of eight or ten writers who normally inhabit crime fiction anthologies. Two names leap out at me because I know their work: Eric Beetner, who's everywhere, and Meagan Lucas.

Beetner is in fine form here, with an entry titled First Timers, a story that turns on its ear the typical car theft story. Ashton and Clark steal a car, sure, take it for a joyride, sure, but find out too late Gene''s locked in the trunk. They let him out, and the stakes get higher.

A gunshot cut through the room. Gene yelped and went down clutching his leg. I looked around the room and saw a smoking gun in the hands of one of the men. Ashton and I froze. I dropped the blood-stained screwdriver. Two men rushed Gene, disarmed him, and put their feet down on his back, pinning him in place.


"Who the fuck are you two?" the gunman asked.

Beetner's plot is a nifty and simple one. Pile the trouble on and turn the tables at least twice. It's a good strong story, the prose effortless and punchy, like the best pulp stories.

Meagan Lucas, author of Songbirds and Stray Dogs, a fine novel from Main Street Rag, weighs in with a story of a poor woman and her children,  Picking the Carcass, in which the woman is given a last chance to move up in the world via an extremely unlikely source. The beginning heralds a writer with a gimlet eye, right down to the shows the children watch and the diet of a family used to SNAP benefits without much fresh food. It's a quiet story that maxes out in details that a more flamboyant writer would overshoot, in this case quite literally. "She picked up the shotgun and held it against the skin of the dog's belly, whispered "I'm so sorry, BIg Guy," and pulled the trigger. Droplets peppered her face, but she didn't care. It hadn't sounded right." Quiet yet apt.

These stories are the highlights for me in an anthology packed to the gills with good stuff. Vern Smith harvested a handy crop of writers in this one, with barely an unworthy story. Other excellent pieces from Zephaniah Sole and Andrew Miller round out this anthology, the first, I believe, from Run Amok Books. I hope to hear more from them in the near future, and thank them for gathering a crime fiction anthology that doesn't rest on contributions from the usual suspects.

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.