Monday, June 26, 2023

A Secret Plan to Win The War, fiction by Zachary Vasquez


The piss-colored sun flared out just beyond the peak of the San Gabriel Mountains and bounced off the left edge of a looming Sambo’s Restaurant sign, refracting and sending a harsh shard of light straight through the windshield of a white ‘67 Chevy C10 sitting at the opposite end of the long parking lot it shared with the El Monte Inn, where it hit the driver, Poke Rodriguez, square between the eyes. He pried the stiff leather visor down to shield himself, but it was too short to give him any relief. He felt as though the jaundiced eye of an angry, cycloptic God was bearing down upon his soul, which would no doubt prove as streaked as the windshield of his truck, if not quite as filthy as the three-month-old copy of Hustler lying on the seat next to him. 

Per the gospel according to Rosalinda Rodriguez, as delivered unto Poke by the living martyr herself several years back after she’d discovered a collection of old cheesecake photos, for which he’d traded a perfectly good Johnny Podres rookie card not two days before, hidden under his mattress, God, who was always watching anyway, was never watching more closely than when a soul engaged in sins of the flesh, even if those sins only took place in the sinner’s imagination. His reply at the time—that that made God a maldito pervertido, then, didn’t it?—had earned him a swift rebuke by way of the back of his mother’s hand. He felt the ghost of that sting now, reflexively bringing his fingertips up to his lips.

He needed a drink something awful. Hoping to distract himself, he picked up the Hustler and opened it over his lap. He flipped through its pages for the umpteenth time with little interest, until he landed on a two-page spread showing a fleshy, freckled blonde with big tits laying atop a large white bed, her legs bent at the knees and splayed wide across both pages so that the middle staple binding the magazine together landed directly below her wispy, white bush. At quick glance, it looked as though she had a silver stud in her clit. A while back, he’d heard tell from Pancho Sandoval—a guitarist he knew from around the way who frequently toured with a couple of brown-eyed soul groups—that there was a whole underground scene of piercing freaks in New York City. Homos mostly, Pancho said, although he’d come across a couple chicks who were into it too. Poke found this prospect more than a little appealing, although he couldn’t say why. He thought maybe he’d check it out for himself on the off-chance he ever made good on his pipe dream of pulling up stakes.

Just as he began to feel the stirrings of something approximating lust, God—either as punishment for his prurience or purely out of boredom—sounded the horn of his emissary. Upon hearing the sharp whistle blast out behind him, Poke jumped in his seat so that his head nearly bounced off the roof of the truck. He shot his eyes into the rearview mirror just in time to catch the short flare of sharp white light swipe through it.

Another of his mother’s oft-repeated homilies held that whenever Christ decides to get up off of his cloud and climb back down to earth, the seven trumpets will sound and fill the air with the song of Heaven. But Poke knew better. Come Judgement Day, it won’t be trumpets blaring, but police sirens.

Chucking the Hustler to the floor, Poke looked into his driver’s side mirror and watched the cop—a Sheriff—exit the cruiser. He was a big guy, not particularly tall, but thick around the shoulders and chest, bulky arms cutting tight against his uniform. From the way he dressed, Poke could tell he was no regular deputy: crisp, tan dress shirt and slacks with nary a crease on them; stiff collar buttoned at the top around a black knit tie pinned flat to his chest by a silver clip; eight-point cap fitted perfectly atop his square head, its bill as polished and sparkling as the black leather wingtips he wore on his feet. So impressed was Poke by the regalia that it took him a couple of seconds to recognize the man underneath.

License and reg—” the cop started as he approached the window, only to pause when he recognized Poke in turn. “Well, shit. Rodriguez.”

Hey, Coach.”

Poke thought back to the last time he’d seen Fred Garza, their paths having crossed six years prior amidst a violent skirmish in the quad of East Los Angeles City College in March of ’68, for what would end up being the final day of his scholastic career.

At the time, that small riot seemed like a residual aftershock to the student blowouts of a few weeks earlier, but now Poke saw it as a prelude to the bloody spring that followed. Within a month, the good Reverend Dr. King would buy it in Memphis and cities across the country would burn in payback. Had he stayed enrolled at East Los, he’d likely have borne witness to some of the worst rioting in the entire Southland, although by that time he was too busy contemplating what all carnage awaited him overseas to much concern himself with any homegrown atrocity. 

Around noon that day, Poke was struggling to keep awake for his English Comp 201 lecture when the auditorium doors were thrown open by three Brown Berets; two scrawny, dark-skinned freshman girls and a scraggly, thickset boy he recognized from a stats course he’d taken the previous semester. They stormed the podium and cut off the bewildered professor, a white-haired biddie named Moss who’d been boring the class with a long reminiscence of her misspent youth as a pinko agitator in the ‘40s. Once assembled, they took turns shouting their demands through a shared bullhorn: 

Down with the racist grading system designed to flush out brown and black students! Up with bi-lingual education!” 

Down with the campus ROTC! Up with a Latin American Studies department!” 

Down with the colonialist curriculum taught in the humanities! Up with Corky Gonzales!” 

¡Ándele! ¡Ándele! ¡Ándele!”

Like the rest of his classmates, Poke observed the interruption with exhausted irritation, right up until Professor Moss attempted to engage the demonstrators in a dialog, no doubt counting on her own lefty bonafides to engender sympathy and a mutual respect. She was quickly and viciously disabused of this notion when the male of the trio her grabbed her by the shawl around her collar and flung her headlong and screaming into the first row of students. At that point, the class gave over to chaos and Poke, who’d been sitting in the back row, quickly and quietly made his exit.

Walking out of the auditorium, he turned the corner of the building and nearly barreled into a roving line of nearly two dozen members of the L.A.P.D. Trailing behind at a safe distance, he followed them over to the school quad and watched as they assembled themselves in riot formation to await the loud procession of around 45 Brown Berets marching towards them from other end of the lawn. The marchers, all of whom sported their namesake headwear, held aloft signs in English and Spanish demanding everything from a Spanish-language curriculum, to the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, to the prosecution of Lyndon Baines Johnson for war crimes, to the copulation of Los Angeles’s law enforcement personnel with their own close relatives. 

Poke had no desire to watch the inevitable play out, so he sprang off in the opposite direction, but stopped after only a couple of steps when he heard a sharp whistle, followed by “¡Oye! Poke!” 

He turned around and looked over to a row of benches in one corner of the lawn, where a group of students and a few members of the faculty gathered to gawk at the encroaching fray. Standing atop one of the benches waving his arms in the air was his lifelong friend Dickie Ramirez. Standing beside him, almost as tall despite Dickie’s vantage, was his other longtime running buddy, Eddie Alonso.

Poke was hardly surprised to see Dickie, who wasn’t enrolled at the school but was always hanging around trying to pick up girls, although he was thrown by the sight of Eddie. Since they’d all graduated high school together a year-and-half earlier, Eddie spent every working hour of the week at his family’s tire shop. Poke wondered how he’d managed to talk his slave-driver of a father into giving him the day off when the answer shot into him like a bolt from an impact wrench. He stopped where he stood and stared dumbstruck at them until Eddie, recognizing Poke’s own terrible recognition, nudged Dickie to climb down off the bench and the two of them walked over to him. 

As soon as they were upon him, Poke said, “Choice, not chance. Fuck me.”

¿Como es que?” Dickie asked.

Poke ignored him and asked Eddie, “You get a letter in the mail today?”

Eddie nodded. “Ma called the shop soon as she saw who it was from.”

How’d she take it?”

Better than my pops, actually. It was like someone kicked him in the balls.”

No kidding? Guess the old man loves you after all.”

 “Love, shit,” Eddie hawked a loogie at the grass. “He’s just pissed now he’s gotta pay someone a living wage to fill in for me while I’m gone.” 

The fuck is up with you two?” Dickie cut in. “You both acting like you just saw your sisters in a goddamn donkey show.”

It ain’t exactly welcome news,” Poke said.

But it’s expected, no? That’s why we come up with the deal, ‘member?” 

Yeah, I fucking remember.”

One for one, all for all.”


Fuck you, dick, you know what I mean.”

Myself, I’m saying. How the fuck did I let you talk me into this?”

What, you gonna pussy out?”

I didn’t say that.”

You scared, so now you gonna pussy out.”

Lay off,” Eddie said to Dickie. “He wants out, he’s out, no hard feelings.”

I didn’t say I want out.”

Ay, cabrones,” Dickie threw his hands in the air. “What the fuck? All acting like someone tripped over your graves. Man, time we’re through with basic training, war’ll already be over and done with.”

Poke asked, “What the hell are you talking about?”

That Nixon dude running for president say he got a secret plan to win the war. What? Don’t look at me like that, motherfucker, I listen to the news. Anyways, like as not, time we get over there, the only thing we gotta worry about is catching yellow fever from some sideways pussy, know what I mean?”

Secret plan…” Poke muttered, shaking his head. He let his attention drift over to the lawn, where the pigs and the protesters were squaring off. The administration building lay just beyond the police blockade and Poke knew that unless the Berets were willing to accept this line of demarcation—and clearly they were not, seeing as how no one from that office was present to hear their demands—it was only a matter of minutes before the head-busting got underway.

Watching it all, Poke felt the same onrush of resentment and shame that came over him whenever he was confronted with scenes of civic protest: resentment towards his politically-active peers, whose self-assured moral indignation and performative zeal struck him as endlessly exasperating; shame at himself for not caring enough to stand alongside them regardless. The shame was double in that moment, since he knew it was partly on his own behalf they were protesting.

It had grown increasingly clear to Poke during his time in college that the war in Vietnam would not, as he hoped, wind down before he finished his two-year term. Having neither the grades nor the money to transfer to a proper four-year university come the fall, he’d soon enough be out of deferments. With that in mind, he’d recently informed Dickie and Eddie—both of whom, like himself, turned 19 over the previous months—that he planned to drop out, seeing as there was no practical point in his staying on for the rest of the semester. A few days later, they approached him with their grand idea: that as soon as either one of them received their draft notice, they would all three sign up together in order to reap the benefits that came with voluntary enlistment: choice of branch, better MOS, the opportunity to serve with friends. Dire as Poke found the prospect of handing himself over to the white man’s army to fight in their bullshit war, he could come up with no better alternative. He wasn’t about to burn his draft card and willingly go to jail. Between jail and the army, he’d take his chances in the army. 

There was, of course, always Mexico. But somehow, that option struck him as the least plausible. He might have been a Mex, but he didn’t know shit about Mexico.

Later on, he tried not to blame his friends for bringing him into the deal or to begrudge them the strokes of individual luck that resulted in their mostly sitting things out while he did his full bit and then some. He only even let himself hate them a little bit when the national lottery was established after he’d already shipped out and, upon doing the math, he realized that had he just lasted out that final semester and carried his deferment through the summer, the chances of his being drafted later on were slim-to-none. 

  But he didn’t know any of that on that day. Nor did he have a chance to further weigh his options. Just as the cops began to push in on the protesters, a new ruckus sounded from the entrance of the quad. Poke and the others looked on as two dozen more cops came marching in. At first, Poke assumed they were reinforcements, but he quickly realized that wasn’t the case. Unlike the officers already on the scene, who were decked out in their monochromatic blue uniforms, this new troop bore the brown and tan colors of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

Uh-oh,” Dickie exclaimed. “Shit’s about to hit the fan!”

Poke knew he was right. As every native of East L.A. was well aware, the only people whom the members of the L.A.S.D. and the L.A.P.D. held greater disdain for than hippies, spics, niggers, fairies or even honest-to-god criminals were one another. Despite the friendly face of cooperation they put on for the papers, the hate between departments ran as deep as it did any other warring gangs. 

After a few moments of outward confusion, that hate surfaced for all to see, as representatives from both tribes angrily confronted each other, arguing like baseball coaches and umpires: bumping chests, kicking dirt, screaming in one another’s faces over who had the proper jurisdiction, all while the rank and file hurled insults and threats.

At first, the Berets soaked this all up with bemused annoyance, but it wasn’t long until that morphed into open derision. They started chanting, “¡Lucha! ¡Lucha! ¡Lucha!” One joker from the bunch moved between both groups, pretending to take side bets on the action. Soon enough, the campus onlookers were likewise heckling the cops, who seemed to realize all at once that they had made themselves into laughingstocks.

 Poke felt the air in his belly drop at the same moment a thrum of electricity ran through his teeth. He remembered thinking at the time that this must be what people who can predict storms feel right before the thunder cracks.

Next thing he knew, the lawn was a free-for-all, a rolling boil of brown and blue uniforms washing over the diminutive, dark-skinned youths who, in their joviality, were caught completely off-guard by the sheer fury of violence that answered them. Despite their almost having come to blows a few seconds before, both groups of cops worked together to cordon off their prey, trapping the protesters in a tight pen from which there was no chance of escape. Several bystanders within grabbing distance—men and women alike, a couple of whom Poke recognized as profs—were pulled in against their will and subjected to the same brutal beatdown. A few brave souls outside the circle beseeched the police to stop, but their cries went unheeded. 

Poke knew he and his friends had stuck around too long. Without having to say anything to Dickie or Eddie, they cut and ran in the opposite direction. They only made it halfway down a row of classrooms when a small retinue of newly arrived Sheriffs appeared from the other side of the campus, jumping out from behind a corner to cut them off. Poke nearly pissed himself at the sight of five hulking, furious, brown-clad, bubble-helmeted shitkickers come running up on him, clubs shorn and raised aloft, but at the last moment one of their number came to a sudden halt, pulled out a silver coach’s whistle, shoved it under the lid of his visor and blew into it. The others stopped and looked back at him.

Not them—over there!” He raised a hand and tomahawked it in the direction of the quad. The four riot cops followed his command, dashing off around Poke, Dickie and Eddie, while their leader stayed behind and removed his helmet. 

Coach!” Dickie yipped in relief. “Thank Go—”

Line up!” Garza ordered, like they were all back at El Rancho High running drills, which they might as well have been for the quickness with which they obeyed, pushing themselves up against the wall and standing at attention. “It’s Corporal today, boys.”

It was the first time Poke was actually glad to know the man he’d called coach during his freshman year of high school. Fred Garza, proud son of El Monte, who’d done the city proud in turn by helping lead The Dons to the state semis in ’53, before joining the Sheriffs a few years later and volunteering his free time at the school coaching frosh. While he had yet to repeat his success on the field of play, he seemed to have done well for himself career-wise. He’d been a deputy with the Sheriff’s last Poke had known. That he’d made it to the rank of Corporal was no small feat for a Mex cop, even one who worked in el valle de San Gabriel.

Far as coaches went, Garza was alright; a remorseless hard-ass to be sure, but no sadist. Nor did Poke harbor any ill will over how he’d kept him benched for all but a handful of plays during his one and only season of high school ball. That was where he belonged, having only signed up to play in the first place because Dickie and Eddie, both natural sportsmen, badgered him into doing so. (Story of my life, he would later reflect.) For his part, Garza loathed Poke, not because he was a poor athlete—the nickname Slowpoke may have stemmed from Saturday morning cartoons, but he’d certainly lived down to it—but out of some deeper, implacable notions Poke never could quite figure out.

Time, it seemed, had done nothing to soften his former coach’s opinion, Poke registering the man’s disgust as he moved past him over to Dickie and Eddie, both of whom he regarded with a rote sternness that in no way belied the warmth he felt towards them.

I’m disappointed in you boys,” he said to them. “This is about the last place I’d expect to find you two.”

We’re just visiting Poke,” said Eddie.

That figures,” Garza said, casting the evil eye Poke’s way.

But we ain’t have nothing to do with that mess over there, Coach,” Dickie said.

Corporal,” Garza corrected him.

Honest, sir, Corporal,” Eddie said. “We were just minding our own business when those bums showed up. Wrong place, wrong time, that’s all.”

Hell, I know that. If I thought I wasted my time schooling the two of you only for you to turn into a couple of flag burners, why, I’d take this gun out its holster and blow my goddamn brains out.” He looked once more at Poke. “After I got through with you first.”

What I mean,” he continued, “is I’m disappointed to find you stateside at all. There’s a war on and you boys have to be nineteen by now. You should be doing your part.”

Funny you should mention that, Coa—Corporal,” Dickie said, while Poke let his attention drift over to the steady echo of screams banging down the hallway, a baleful ferment that enveloped his spirit and carried it over an auditory topography of the hot, dark jungle that lay waiting for him halfway across the world. It was like hearing the future.

So they bumped you up to Sergeant, huh?” Poke asked Garza after the man corrected him on his new designation.

That’s right.”

Congratulations. I’m sure you deserved the promotion.”

A shadow moved over Garza’s face. “I deserved it five years ago, you got that?”

I got it,” Poke said, meaning it. He noticed Garza had his hand placed over the butt of his pistol in his hip holster, its buckle unclamped. “So, what brings you over to this dump?”

I’m canvassing.”


Some asshole held up a liquor store a few blocks away from here not 30 minutes ago. Cashier said he thought he saw the suspect speed off in a gray pick-up.”

I see,” Poke leaned his head out the window a little and surveyed the paint job on his truck. “Pretty sure my truck is white. Granted, she could use a wash—”

So could you,” Garza said. “And a haircut and a shave.”

Poke ran a hand through his greasy hair. “You trying to say it’s not just my truck fits the description?”

Garza shrugged. “Guy wore a ski mask.”


But…” Garza added, peering into the truck to survey Poke’s seated frame, “clerk also said the asshole was tall.”

That’s a relief. First time I’ve ever been glad to be short.”

“‘Course, he could’a had an accomplice. You know, a getaway driver.”

Poke laughed. “Anyone dumb enough to use my truck as a getaway car is just begging to be caught. Even if she didn’t stall out on ‘em—and that’s a big if—all you’d have to do is follow the trail of oil. Lead you right to your man.”

Garza weighed this for a couple seconds before moving his hand off his gun. His posture softened a little. “So what are you doing then, sitting out here all by yourself?”

I’m waiting for my wife,” Poke answered.

Your wife?”

Yeah, she works here.” Poke crooked a thumb at the motel behind them. “Gets off at five.”

Garza raised his right wrist to his face and read his watch. “It’s 5:27. Where’s she at?”

Still working, no doubt. Asshole owns the place is always keeping her late. I’d tell her to quit, but we really do need the money.”

Supposed to be the man’s job to provide for his family,” Garza said.

What can I say.” Poke threw up his hands. “Stagflation is a motherfucker.”

Stagflation? Seriously?”

Take it up with Nixon, Sarge.”

Just then, Poke looked in his rearview mirror and caught sight of a plump, young Mex woman exiting one of the rooms along the top corridor of the motel. She was pushing a towel cart with cleaning supplies in front of her. “That’s her there,” he said, gesturing to Garza, who turned and looked. Poke stuck his hand out the window and waved, but she didn’t appear to see him as she disappeared around a corner.

Garza let out a heavy sigh. “That wasn’t fair of me, what I said just now. It’s hard times for a lot of folks, I know.”

Poke shrugged. “I’ve seen harder.”

That so?”

A lot’s happened in the last—what’s it been? Six years?”

I take it you did end up going over, then? Last we spoke, you were planning on signing up.”

Oh, I did. I signed up, I shipped out, I came back. In one piece, more or less.”

More or less?”

You know how it is. Hey, at least I got some pretty looking medals for my trouble. I can always pawn ‘em if we’re ever real hard-up.”

What about Ramirez and Alonso? You three were supposed to go in together, weren’t you?”

We did. Or at least we tried to. Me and Dickie had basic together at Fort Ord, though we ended up in different companies. Marines got Eddie. Plucked his giant ass right outta line when he went downtown for processing, said ‘Welcome to the Corps.’”

Good boys, those two.”

They both made it back, case you were wondering.”

I’d have heard if they didn’t.”

Actually, Dickie didn’t make it back, by which I mean, he never shipped out to begin with. After Ord, they give him his AIT, send him down to Fort Benning, down Georgia way? Well, anyway, they had some kind of hazing scandal down there, I don’t know. Didn’t have nothing to do with Dickie except apparently he bunked with some rich kid the D.I.’s stomped half to death, so they ended up canceling his orders, kept him stateside as like a witness or some such.”

Lucky break.”

You want to talk luck and breaks, talk to Eddie. He ended up in Quảng Trị, as part of the 4th Marine Regiment. His first day over there—first fucking day—supply crate falls on top of him, breaks his foot and ankle in three places.”

That don’t sound so lucky.”

It does when you learn what it got him out from under. The 4th had their hands full with three gook regiments for three straight months, ended up taking some of the worst casualties in all of ’69. A hundred dead by the end of it. That shit kicked off less than a week after Eddie had his accident. Time he healed up and made it back, party was all but over.”

Garza shook his head. “I suppose you heard about Mendoza and Garcia?”

Yeah,” Poke said coldly. “I heard.”

What about Williams?”

What about him?”

Went AWOL and ran off to Canada, the little shit.”

I’ll be damned. Guess he wasn’t as stupid as I always thought he was.”

Huerta,” Garza continued, “he signed up for the Air Force, but we popped him peddling grass right before he went in. He pulled almost a year in county.”

Now that doesn’t surprise me. Who was it you think we all copped from back in the day?”

Garza looked past Poke and stared off at the mountains in the distance. After a few moments of weighted silence, he asked, “Where the hell did it all go wrong? That’s half my starting line killed or maimed in war, or else disgraced themselves dodging it. Meanwhile, you, a born third-stringer if ever I saw one…you actually did your bit and lived to tell about it.”

Can’t ride the bench forever, I suppose. Besides, you give me too much credit. Make it sound like I won the war single-handed. I don’t know if you heard, but, ah, our side didn’t exactly bring home the gold.” 

The same shadow Poke had noticed before once again darkened Garza’s features. He placed his hand back on the butt of his gun and leaned closer towards the truck window. After another heavy interval of silence, he asked, “Do you know why I never liked you, Rodriguez?”

Poke sat up straight in his seat. “No. I really don’t.”

Had nothing to do with you’re athletic abilities. Hell, you weren’t even the worst player on the team that season. You had decent enough instincts, if not the physical skills to make use of them. Wasn’t the fact that you’re a born smart-ass, either. As much lip as you give your teachers and the other students, you knew better than to run your mouth at me. It’s not even that I could always tell you got no personal ambition. Your whole generation’s that way, it’s not fair single you out.”

He paused to take a deep breath, then continued.

The reason I don’t like you, the reason I never liked you, is ‘cause you joined the team without joining the team.”

I don’t understand.”

Yes you do.”

No, I don’t. Didn’t I always follow orders? Do everything I was told.”

Yes, you did.”

I never complained. Never argued. Never cried, never bitched.”

No, you didn’t.”

So then what—what’s the problem?”

The problem is this: for a team to win a thing, be it a ball game or a war, it needs every member to want to win. To believe in the cause.”

Poke gave a bitter laugh. “So we’re not talking about football, then.”

We’re not only talking about football.”

Coach, not even the people leading the fucking cause believed in it.”

What difference does that make? Would it have changed anything if they did, far as you’re concerned?”

Poke didn’t answer.

That’s what I thought,” said Garza. “And this the thing that really burns me up: I’ve seen countless boys—some of them I’ve coached, some of them we were just talking about—good boys, decent boys, boys who made the effort to believe, who did believe, but who made one bad decision along the way, or just caught a lousy fucking break, and ended up dead, or in jail, or on the streets, or in a fucking straight jacket.”

Oh, so that’s it. I see now. It’s not just that I didn’t believe. It’s that I didn’t believe but still dared to survive. Should be them others sitting here, instead of me.”

Garza and Poke stared hard into one another’s eyes, unblinking, until Garza let out another sad sigh. He slumped his shoulders and took a step back. “I never wished you ill, Rodriguez. I just wanted better for others who deserved better.”

He let the words lay, then turned around and walked back to his cruiser. When he was reaching for the handle of the door, Poke, against his better judgement, stuck his head out the truck window and called over, “Hey!”

Garza stopped and turned around.

Maybe I don’t deserve to be sitting here right now. Whether you think so or not, it’s probably true. But what do you wanna bet it was one them better boys—one of them good, decent, believing types—ripped off that liquor store today?”

Garza walked back over to Poke. When he was standing in front of him again, he said, “Maybe. Or maybe it was you after all.”

Poke grinned. “If it was, do you think you could prove it?”

Garza’s shook his head. “I don’t need to prove it. If it ain’t me who nails your ass, it’ll be someone I know. If not for this job, then the next. Or, like as not, some cowboy clerk will do the job for us. Sooner or later—and sooner either way than you think—you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of a double barrel shotgun, end up bleeding out behind the counter of some rundown liquor mart keeps a hundred buck in the till. I won’t be around when it happens, but you can be damn sure I’ll be there to watch them scrape what’s left of you off the sticky floors. Because this game, it only ever ends one of two ways, even for the best players. And you ain’t got near what it takes to last as long at it as them.”

No? You said a second ago that my instincts were good.”

Garza scoffed. “Instincts don’t count for nothing if you’re shit on your feet. And I’ve seen you on your feet, remember, Slowpoke?”

Poke looked down at his feet by the pedals of the truck, then back up at Garza. “Carried me out the jungle, didn’t they?”

The one in Southeast Asia, maybe. But this is East L.A., Holmes. Jungle might get you yet—”

By the time Poke noticed the charge running through his teeth, the shot had already sounded and Garza was falling over sideways, half his head exploded in a spray of red mist. As happened to Poke in the immediate aftermath of his first encounter with sudden and violent death—when a guy in his platoon tripped a Bouncing Betty during a recon mission not ten feet from where he’d been walking—the world around him blinked out of existence and he found himself floating within a nacreous pink fog. He’d later be given understand this synaptic fugue lasted only a couple of seconds, but for all he knew it might have been hours. Now, as then, he made his way back to the world sense by sense, in order of smell, taste, sound, sight and, finally, touch. The acrid smoke of cordite filled his nostrils and carried down the back of his throat, before the reverberation in his ears took on the sound of running footsteps followed by the nearby slamming of a door. When his vision returned, he was staring at the empty space of parking lot where Garza had stood a moment before. He sat there and blinked, uncomprehending, until he felt a sharp slap against his right shoulder. He turned to his right to see Eddie, wild-eyed and terror-stricken, seated beside him.

What the fuck are you waiting for?! Fucking go!”   

Poke turned the key in the ignition and tore out of the parking lot. He immediately drove through a red light and had to swerve out of the way of a van moving through the intersection from the opposite direction, then narrowly avoided sideswiping two other vehicles as he cut right across three lanes at once in order to make it onto the nearby freeway on-ramp. He didn’t think about direction or destination, but nonetheless found himself heading south towards the one-bedroom hovel he and Eddie had been flopping at for the past three weeks. For the several minutes they spent on the freeway, Eddie sat on his knees facing the back window of the truck, watching for cops while holding tight to his still-smoking pistol. It was only once they were off the freeway again that he spoke, barraging Poke with a flurry of questions: “Who the fuck was that cop? Why the fuck were you talking to him so long? What’d you tell him? Did anyone see you? Did anyone get our license plate?” Poke didn’t attempt to answer any of these, and eventually Eddie turned his questions to himself. “What did you do? Oh god, what did you do?

When they arrived at their spot, Poke told Eddie to get out and wait for him inside. Eddie obeyed without further question, grabbing up the Hustler from the floor mats and using it conceal his pistol, along with a bulging brown paper sack he’d removed from his back pocket when he climbed out. Poke watched him rush up the short flight of concrete stairs to their single room unit on the top floor of the dilapidated apartment complex and disappear behind the door. He then drove five blocks east and parked the truck off a narrow side street shielded from the main drag by a row of auto garages and warehouses.

On the brisk walk back to his room, Poke felt the numbness of shock leave him. He expected fear and panic to take its place, but to his surprise, he remained entirely calm.

When he entered the room, he found Eddie already nodding out. He was seated on his mattress on the floor across from Poke’s bed and boxspring, head and back propped against the wall, legs splayed spread eagle in front of him. He still had his belt wrapped around his right bicep, although it had gone slack. His works lay on the floor beside the mattress, alongside the pistol and brown paper sack. Poke walked over and picked them up. He tossed the pistol onto his bed, then opened up the sack and did a quick count of the cash inside. Eddie had spent more than he said he would on the dope. His precious, stupid dope that he’d insisted on copping first thing after the score in spite of Poke’s objections and which had taken them to that wretched motel and made of them cop killers.

He tossed the bag onto the bed beside the pistol, then stared down at Eddie. A hoarse, wheezy moan emanated out the black chasm of his open mouth. It made Poke suddenly cognizant of his own body, the inside of his throat still scorched with the taste of brimstone. He moved over to the sink and drank a couple palmfuls of water, then grabbed a fresh quart of rye whiskey from the cupboards below. He’d bought the bottle first thing that morning but had forced himself to save it until the day’s work was done. It had taken every ounce of willpower not to break the seal once he had it in hand, yet Eddie couldn’t even give it a couple of hours for any heat to die down to go cop a fix.

Poke took two long pulls from the bottle in quick succession, then went over to the bed and plunked himself down. He kicked off his shoes, put up his feet and set to drinking. He didn’t know how long he’d been staring at Eddie before he realized he was stroking the pistol where it lay next to him. He picked it up and aimed it at Eddie, squinting one eye to fix a sight dead center on his gaping maw. Nearly a minute passed before he lowered the pistol and placed it back down beside him. He continued to stare at Eddie. He no longer felt anger towards him, only pity. But that pity was suffused with a keen sense of jealousy. He envied the ease and totality of his friend’s oblivion. Drinking, it took Poke far longer to reach the same state, and all the while his head raging with usual din of dark thoughts, painful memories and bad dreams.

It was only in thinking about those chimeras that Poke noticed their absence now. His head felt completely clear. Instead of sending him into the usual tempest that preceded the desired blackout, the booze seemed to crystallize his thoughts. He was able to put his current circumstance into such sharp relief that he could look through it and see what came next. It was like seeing the future.

He saw that he needn’t worry over Eddie. Eddie posed no danger to him. His friend would never be able to live with what he’d done, not even for a day. Once he came to and remembered, he would immediately and permanently retreat back into the dungeon of his soul for which dope made the key. He would swallow that key and be swallowed up in turn. By the time anyone who came looking for him found him, he would be long gone.

So too would Poke be gone, although not in the same sense. It was obvious he could not afford to stick around, but nor was it enough to simply skip town. A change of scenery would make no difference if he continued to carry on as he had been the past two years. He had to make a real change. No more dithering about in a sunburnt haze of daytime dope smoking and an amniotic blur of late-night boozing. No more half-assed criminal enterprises. Garza was right: either the cops would nail him or else he’d wind up plastered over the sticky floors of some shabby, two bit liquor store with a hundred bucks in the till. Or, just as likely and worse yet, he’d manage to avoid any such reckoning altogether. He’d skate by for weeks, on top of months, on top of years, staying put, doing the same thing day after day until one day he’d take the cliché route expected of him, stick his own gun in his own mouth and pull the trigger himself. Just one more burnt-out head case who couldn’t hack it in civilian life.

No. He would not abide such a fate. He’d change his life, find something to live for, something to believe in, just like Garza said. He had no clue what that thing would be, but he was certain he’d recognize it once he found it.

Poke polished off the bottle, letting the final drop of booze roll around on his tongue until it soaked into his taste buds. He made sure to savor it, as it would be his last for the foreseeable future. He had work to do and he knew he couldn’t do it drunk.

Zachary Vasquez is a Los Angeles born-and-bred writer of fiction, journalism, and criticism.

His novelette, “Panama”, was published in the Summer 2022 volume of the literary noir journal Vautrin. His work has also appeared in Mystery Tribune, The Guardian, Crime Reads, and Fangoria. 

Monday, June 19, 2023

Bottom Girl, fiction by Michael Bracken


A thick blonde, half as wide as she was tall, sporting a bouffant that added three inches to her diminutive height, stood behind the screen door and stared up at me like I was that day’s blue-plate special. In a voice that dripped southern honey, she asked, “Can I do for you, hon?”

I introduced myself as I pressed a 4” x 5” print of Elka Schubert’s high school graduation portrait against the screen. “Do you know this girl?”

“Can’t say as I do.” Dixie Lynn Hollis unlatched the screen door. “Y’all want to come in out of the heat, Mr. Johnson, maybe have some sweet tea? I could look at that there picture a bit closer.”

I drew back the photo of Elka, and the woman behind the door pushed it open.

“No, thank you.”

She batted her false eyelashes. “I can surely show you a good time, hon, take your mind off that young thing.”

I pressed one of my business cards into her soft hand. “You see her around, you call me.”

Without looking at the card that identified me as a private investigator, she stuffed it into her ample cleavage and smiled. “Could have been you in there.”

I thanked Dixie Lynn for her time and returned to my SUV. She was still standing in her open doorway when I drove off, but her expression had hardened.

* * *

“I’ve talked to everyone living in a three-block radius,” I told Elka’s mother later that evening, “and no one knows anything.”

Anna Schubert and I spoke over mismatched mugs of black coffee while sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table in her two-bedroom brick ranch. Though I had tasted mine, my client’s coffee had not been touched since she’d placed the mugs on the table.

“Didn’t the police already talk to everyone?”

“Not everyone,” I explained, “and they won’t put much more effort into finding Elka until they have a good reason to believe she isn’t just avoiding you. I’ve been trying to find that reason.”

“But it’s been three weeks, and I’ve called her friends, and—”

I reached across the table and placed my hand on my client’s forearm. “You told the police about your argument. That’s why they think she ran off.”

All parents establish rules that their children resist, so Anna and Elka’s argument had not been unusual. Anna and her eighteen-year-old daughter had disagreed about the curfew Anna had set and Elka had violated once too often. The argument had included variations of “my house, my rules” and “if you can’t abide by them, you should leave.” After that, Elka stormed off to her room and slammed the door. Anna did the same.

The following morning, Anna opened her daughter’s bedroom door intending to apologize for the more egregious things she had said, but Elka wasn’t there, her bed had not been slept in, and her purse was missing. Calls to her daughter’s friends yielded no information about Elka’s whereabouts, so Anna phoned the police, who made a cursory attempt to locate her, and two weeks later she phoned me.

I had made no more progress during the week I raced through my client’s retainer than the police had made with their half-hearted efforts. I didn’t want to tell Anna that her daughter likely wasn’t coming home, but someone had to.

So I did.

The last glimmer of hope drained from Anna’s face.

“But, Stu, you promised—”

“I did all I could.”

“I can get more money. I can—” She twisted at the wedding ring and diamond solitaire engagement ring on her left hand, which she still wore despite her husband’s death in Afghanistan a few years earlier. “I can—”

“I can’t take any more of your money,” I told her. I was younger then, idealistic enough to chase every lead but honest enough to know when they weren’t leading anywhere. “Do you have someone you can call? Family? Friend? Pastor?”

She shook her head.

And then she stared into my eyes.

“Stay with me,” she said. “Hold me. Just for tonight.”

* * *

As the years passed, I thought of Anna Schubert and her missing daughter less and less often. I might have eventually forgotten them if I had not flipped open the Waco Tribune-Herald one morning ten years after abandoning the case and seen Dixie Lynn Hollis staring back at me from a photograph under the headline “Seven arrested on sex trafficking charges.”

I dug through my files and found a folder containing a compact disk and Elka Schubert’s high school graduation photo, and I was staring at the photograph when my desk phone rang. I didn’t need the caller to identify herself.

“Did you see this morning’s paper?” Anna Schubert demanded. “That woman lived three blocks from us. Three blocks! Did you even talk to her?”

“I did,” I said.


“She gave me no reason to think she knew anything about your daughter’s disappearance.”

“And now? What do you think now?”

What I thought was that I had failed Anna. That I had failed her daughter. That I had failed myself. What I said was, “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry doesn’t begin to atone for your inability to find my daughter, you son-of-a-bitch.” Anna still had a landline, and she slammed the handset down, disconnecting the call.

* * *

My former client’s neighborhood had aged. Once a well-established middle-class area populated by the original homeowners, it had degenerated into a hodgepodge of rentals, where absentee landlords cared as little for the property as the tenants did. When Anna opened her door, I saw that time had taken a greater toll on her than on the neighborhood.

Her pale blue eyes widened when she saw me standing on her broken concrete porch, and she moved backward as I pushed the door open wide enough to step into the living room. She had replaced her quality console television with a larger flat-screen mounted to the wall, but little else had changed. Her dead husband’s Army Ranger School graduation photograph remained on one end of the fireplace mantle and her missing daughter’s high school graduation photo on the other. I did not push any further, but I suspected that little had changed in the rest of the house and that Elka’s bedroom remained much as it had been the night she left home.

The anger Anna had vented on the phone earlier that morning had not dissipated, and she glared up at me. “Why did you come here, Mr. Johnson?”

I wasn’t entirely certain. Perhaps I needed to gaze into Anna’s eyes and see all the pain that remained. Instead of answering her question, I asked one of my own. “Why are you still here? The memories must be—”

“Because I need to be here when my daughter comes home.”

Anna had used the money from her husband’s Department of Defense death gratuity and Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance policy to purchase the house and the now twelve-year-old Dodge Caravan parked in the drive. She had put some aside to pay for Elka’s college expenses, and she and her daughter had been living off the remainder when we first met. I suspected the money was gone, or nearly so, and that she could not have afforded to move even if she wished to.

She said, “So why are you here?”

Until that moment I’d been uncertain myself. I said, “I’m going to try again.”

* * *

I stored my case files electronically, and I realized after Anna Schubert’s telephone call earlier that morning that Elka’s files had been moved to a compact disc for which my new Macintosh lacked an appropriate drive. After I left Anna’s home, I purchased a CD drive at Best Buy, expecting to return to my office, hook it up, pop in the CD, and review all of my notes from back then.

What I did not expect was finding Dixie Lynn Hollis standing at my office door, the business card I had given her ten years earlier grasped between her pudgy fingers. She had, at some point, removed it from her ample cleavage and retained it for no reason I could fathom.

I unlocked the door and pushed it open. The two rooms I rented in the Alico Building included a receptionist’s area and my office on the other side of it. I’d never had a receptionist, but I ensured that the desk always looked as if someone had just stepped away. Dixie Lynn followed me through the reception area into my office and, as I put the bag containing my new CD drive on my desk, I asked, “What do you want?”

“To hire you.” The southern honey I remembered had disappeared from her voice. The bouffant had also disappeared, and her dishwater blond hair hung limply to her shoulders.


“You see this morning’s Trib?”

The open paper on my desk told her I had.

“I done a lot of things in my life I ain’t proud of,” she said, “but I never done—”

I glared at her and she swallowed the lie she was about to spew.

She pulled ten sweaty hundred-dollar bills from her cleavage and spread them across my desk—dirty money, not only from where she kept it but also from how she earned it.

“I don’t want your money.”

Dixie Lynn took another tack as she pointed at the photo of Elka Schubert on my desk next to the newspaper. “You never found her, did you, that girl you were looking for?”

My eyes narrowed but I didn’t answer.

“I had nothing to do with that,” Dixie Lynne said, “but maybe by helping me you’ll find out who did.”


“I can point you in the right direction,” she said. “There ain’t much more I can do.”

I still had not sat, and I did not offer her a seat. “What do you think I can do for you?”

She hesitated, as if trying to determine which of several stories she might tell me. Finally, she said, “I ain’t done what I done because I find enjoyment in it.”

“So what do you get out of it?”


That made no sense to me, and I said so. “You get convicted for sex trafficking, you’ll likely spend the remainder of your life behind bars.”

“Beats the needle.”

“You’re telling me you did something that could get you the death penalty?”

“My father died when I was seven,” she said. “My mother remarried when I was nine, and when I was thirteen, puberty caught my stepfather’s attention. I’m not about to tell you everything he did to me, but he certainly wasn’t gentle. My mother wouldn’t do a thing to stop him, and I was too scared to tell anyone else what was happening.”

I listened carefully. Her recitation didn’t sound well-rehearsed, but it did sound as if she’d told the story before.

“I put on weight, hoping that would discourage him. It didn’t. He laughed and told me the bigger the cushion the better the pushin’, and it was too late. I drank to numb the pain, but I could never drink enough. By the time I was seventeen, I looked like this”—she spread her arms to ensure I grasped the enormity of her—“and I’d had enough.”

I couldn’t help myself. “What happened?”

“My stepfather’s best friend found me on my eighteenth birthday, waking up from a blackout drunk in my parents’ living room with a .38 in my hand and my stepfather on the other side of the room with two bullet holes in his chest.”

“You shot him?”

“Somebody certainly did,” Dixie Lynn said. “Trevor took the gun from my hand and told me to wait until he left before calling the cops. He told me to tell them the truth—that I woke up from a blackout drunk and found my stepfather dead in the room with me. He told me not to tell anyone about the gun, that he would take care of it. He told me not to tell them he was there.”

I glanced down at the front page of that morning’s Waco Tribune-Herald and found Trevor Cash’s mugshot printed two to the right of Dixie Lynn’s. I tapped my index finger on it. “And the police never cottoned to him or to the gun?”

She shook her head. “My stepfather had a record, and there were enough people who carried grudges against him that the cops had at least a dozen suspects. They weren’t able to pin his murder on any of them, and nobody—not even my mother—mourned his loss enough to push them to do their job. After that, my mother kicked me out, and I would have been living on the street if Trevor hadn’t taken me in. He never touched me, but—” She took a deep breath and stared past me.

After a moment of silence, I prompted her. “But?”

Her attention returned to me. “He wanted me to get him girls. He said if I didn’t, he would tell the police I killed my stepfather and he would give them the gun as proof. He’s held that over me ever since.”

“So what do you think I can do for you?”

“Get the gun. Get the gun before Trevor can use it against me.”

“And then you’ll tell me what happened to Elka Schubert?”

“That was her name?” Dixie Lynn shook her head. “I didn’t remember. There’ve been so many girls.”

She told a hell of a story. It might even have been true. Then she went a step too far.

“The thing is, these girls, a lot of them, they want what happens to them. At least, they think they do. They think they want to be wild and crazy and have sex with older men and by the time they find out what’s really involved, it’s too late for any of them to get out.”

“So, what happened to Elka?”

“When she got too old for our clients, we sold her to a guy in Dallas,” Dixie Lynn said. “I don’t know if she’s still with him, but it’s a place to start.”


“You have to help me first.”

We stared at one another for a moment, and then Dixie Lynn turned and walked out of my office. When she was gone, I stood in the window and stared down at Austin Avenue. After several minutes passed, I turned and used the eraser end of a pencil to push the sweaty hundreds into my top desk drawer.

* * *

After spending some time searching the internet, I made two phone calls, the first to a homicide detective in the Waco Police Department. I asked her about the murder of Reggie Wilson. She didn’t recognize the name.

“It was well before your time,” I said.

“Cold case?”


Templeton Walker laughed. She had a pleasant laugh.

“I’ll have to poke around,” she said. “What’re you really after?”

I told her.

“This’ll cost you.”

“How much?”

“Dinner,” she said. “Tonight.”


“You read my mind.”

* * *

I made my second phone call to Alfredo Martinez in Dallas. Alfredo ran a shelter for runaways, and a year earlier I’d sub-contracted work from a Dallas private investigation firm to help locate a young boy who had disappeared from the shelter. Ricky had left behind everything but the clothes on his back and some friends who said a man in a blue van promised to take him to see the mammoths. The man had kept his promise, and I arrived at the Waco Mammoth National Monument just as they were leaving. Ricky was surprisingly none the worse for his experience, having been rescued before the man could molest him.

I told Alfredo about Elka Schubert and that she might have been sold to a guy in Dallas sometime during the previous ten years. “She’d be twenty-eight now,” I said, “so a little old to be one of your clients.”

“Still, I can ask around. The kids we take off the streets see things most people never notice,” he said. “Send me a photo?”

I promised I would, but first I had to hook up my new CD drive. After I did, I sent Alfredo an email containing the JPEG I’d made when I scanned Elka Schubert’s graduation portrait ten years earlier.

* * *

Over dinner I learned that Dixie Lynn’s story—at least as much of it as the police knew—checked out. When she was a teenager her stepfather had been shot twice with a .38.

“The only witness was his stepdaughter,” Templeton said, “but she’d apparently been passed out drunk when it happened.”

“Any suspects?”

“A dozen or more, but nothing concrete. The investigators assigned to the case had more pressing responsibilities and lost interest after a couple of weeks. I checked Reggie Wilson’s rap sheet. No cop wants to let a murderer walk the streets, but whoever shot Wilson did the world a favor.”

“You know his stepdaughter was arrested as part of that sex-trafficking ring on the front page of today’s Trib.”

“That why you’re interested?”

“Indirectly.” I told her about my aborted search for Elka Shubert. “Dixie Lynn Hollis was one of the people I spoke to ten years ago. After seeing her picture in the paper, I decided to take a closer look at her, see what I missed back then.”

“And what you missed was her stepfather’s murder?”

“What I missed was her involvement in a sex trafficking ring,” I said. “What caught my eye, though, was her stepfather’s death. I thought I’d follow-up on that, see if it gives me any leverage with Dixie Lynn.”

“Who’s your client on this one?”

“Anna Schubert, Elka’s mother.”

“You exhausted that retainer a long time ago, though, didn’t you?”

I nodded.

“So you’re really doing this for yourself.”

I didn’t mention the ten sweaty hundreds Dixie Lynn had given me. “Yeah, I guess I am.”

She reached across the table and laid her hand on my forearm. “I get it,” she said. “We all have cases that haunt us, things we missed or think we might have missed.”

I didn’t admit that I’d nearly forgotten the case until that morning’s newspaper brought everything rushing back.

Templeton stared deep into my eyes. I’m not certain what she saw, but she said, “Why don’t you spend the night at my place, and we’ll exorcise those demons.”

* * *

Templeton had already left for work by the time I awoke and returned to my own place for a shower, a change of clothes, and a few thoughts about how I would approach the day.

I had a lead—a tenuous one—but I wasn’t about to share the news with Anna Schubert. I had failed her once and I had no desire to fail her again.

Because I couldn’t drive up to Dallas and walk the streets asking about Elka, I chose instead to work Dixie Lynn’s case. That meant locating Trevor Cash, who had already posted bail, and having a fist-to-face conversation. A quick internet search and a phone call to confirm the information I’d found was all it took to locate him.

I didn’t want Trevor to know the real reason for my visit, so I pocketed a copy of Elka’s photograph. Then I drove to a tumbledown duplex in Beverly Hills—a small town completely surrounded by Waco—and leaned into the bell.

Uglier in person than in the mugshot printed in the newspaper, Trevor jerked open the door and growled, “Yeah?”

“We need to talk.”

He looked me up and down. “You somebody’s daddy?”

I grabbed a fistful of Trevor’s shirt, lifted him to his toes, and walked him backward into the living room. I kicked the door shut with the heel of my boot and pushed him down. He landed on the couch and sprang back up. He wasn’t prepared for the fist in his chest that stole his breath, made his eyes bulge, and crumpled him back onto the couch.

I flipped my wallet open just long enough for him to see my private investigator’s license, but too fast for him to realize I wasn’t a peace officer. “I saw your picture in the paper,” I said, “and I thought you could help me find someone.”

He caught his breath. “Find who?”

I showed him Elka Shubert’s high school graduation photo.

He shook his head. “Don’t know her.”

“Ten years ago,” I said. “Dixie Lynn probably recruited her.”

“Still don’t know her.” He seemed to have caught his breath but he wasn’t moving.

“But you know Dixie Lynn.”

“Hard to deny that,” he said, “our picture in the paper and all.”

“You’ve known her a long time,” I said, “since she was a kid.”

Trevor was slower to answer this time. “Yeah. And—?”

“She says you killed her father.”

“She says I—?” He sprang from the couch. “She’s lying!”

I pushed him back down.

“She had the gun in her hand when I found her. Her fingerprints are all over it.”

He had easily convinced a scared young woman who wanted her step-father dead that she had killed him, and he had lorded it over her well into middle age. I suspected the truth lay elsewhere. I asked, “Why’d you kill Reggie Wilson? What did he have that you wanted? And why’d you try to pin it on Dixie Lynn?”

Trevor made yet another attempt to deny the obvious. I wouldn’t let him, and after some additional back-and-forth that made my knuckles sore, he came clean.

“We were working a deal and he tried to screw me out of my half. I confronted him and he drew on me. One thing led to another and I took his gun away. I had to shoot him to protect myself.”

“You’re saying it was self-defense?”

“Yeah.” Trevor nodded rapidly, thinking I was buying the story he was selling. “Yeah, it was.”

“So why’d you put Dixie Lynn in the middle of it?”

“It wasn’t until after I’d shot Reggie that I noticed her passed out in the corner. I wiped my prints off and put the gun in her hand, figuring the cops would tumble to her, but she came to. I had to do something, so I convinced her she’d done it, and I told her I would get rid of the gun.”

“And later?”

He looked at me blankly.

“You convinced Dixie Lynn to help you find young girls by threatening to give the gun with her prints on it to the cops.”

He smiled. “Yeah. That worked out pretty good. All this time she’s been afraid I’d do just that. There ain’t no statue of limitations on murder, is there?”

There’d never be a statue honoring his brain power, either.

“So, where’s the gun now?”

He smiled. “That what you’ve come for?”

I said nothing, letting him answer his own question.

“It ain’t here,” he said. “The cops already tore this place up looking for—”

I grabbed the front of his shirt and lifted him off the couch. “Take me to it.”

Turns out we didn’t have to go far, and I left with the .38 that Trevor said Dixie Lynn used to kill her stepfather. I locked it in the gun safe in my office.

* * *

I was pondering what to tell Dixie Lynn when my cellphone rang. I checked the screen, saw Alfredo Martinez’s name, and answered. After greetings and pleasantries, he said, “One of the girls we took in said she thinks she knows the young woman you’re looking for.”

Alfredo told me the girl who might have seen Elka had been living on the streets for six months before becoming a resident at his shelter, kicked out of her mother’s home when her mother’s new boyfriend seemed more interested in her than her mother.

“If it’s the same young woman,” Alfredo said, “she’s working as a bottom girl for Buddy Clarke.”

I’d never heard of Buddy Clarke, but I knew bottom girls were women who acted as mid-level management in the hierarchy between pimps and their stables. They communicated with customers, rented hotel rooms, and managed the day-to-day lives of the girls in the stable. Often, they had worked on their backs before aging out.

“How do I find him?”

Alfredo could provide only a few suggestions, based on what he knew and what the homeless children in his shelter had told him, but it was enough to put me on Interstate 35 headed north.

I stopped first at Alfredo’s shelter, and he introduced me to the girl who said she’d seen my client’s daughter. I showed her Elka’s high school graduation portrait to confirm for myself that she had seen Elka.

The girl pointed to a tiny scar beneath Elka’s left eye that I had thought was a blemish in the original print. “She’s older now, but she still has that scar.”

I asked if she knew Buddy Clarke.

She shook her head. “But I know where she shops.”


She named a strip mall with a grocery store at one end, a discount clothing store at the other, and a variety of smaller shops between them.

* * *

I had no other leads, so I planted myself in the strip mall parking lot and sat in the Texas heat monitoring grocery store visitors from open until close for the next three days. Mid-morning the fourth day I saw Elka. She was accompanied by a large, intimidating gentleman. I needed to find a way to separate the two so that I could talk to her, confirm she was the young woman I sought, and get her away from the situation.

Her escort stuck close to her most of the way through the store. When they neared the restrooms, he told to her wait. “You tell Buddy I left you alone for even a minute and you know what’ll happen.”

He didn’t wait for a response before he ducked inside.

I approached but remained a reasonable distance from the young woman. “Elka.”

She turned toward me.

I repeated her name.

“No one calls me that.” She glanced around and then lowered her voice. “Who are you?”

I told her my name. “Your mother sent me.”

“My mother?” She snorted with derision. “That bitch doesn’t care about me.”

“She does. She misses you.”

“She kicked me out. She—”

“She hired me to find you ten years ago,” I said. “I—I gave up too soon.”

“So why now?”

“Dixie Lynn Hollis was arrested.”

“She told you how to find me?”

“Not exactly, but she’s in trouble and thought I would help her if she helped me find you,” I said. “I’m here to take you home.”

“Who’ll protect me?” she asked. “Buddy will find me. He has ways.”

“We can—”

“Get away from me,” she said. “Mason’s coming back.”

“I—” I didn’t have time to say more. Mason was within earshot. “Thanks,” I told her. “I’ll try that.”

As I walked away, I heard Mason say, “What was that all about?”

I left the store and returned to my SUV. Twenty minutes later Elka and her escort finally finished shopping and loaded their purchases into the back of a white minivan. I followed as they drove away.

They didn’t go far—less than thirty minutes from the grocery store—and most of that time was spent waiting for red lights to turn green. Their destination was an unimposing, single-story white building surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire. The alley-side fence slid open as the van approached and closed again after it entered the parking area.

I watched from a comfortable distance as Elka and Mason unloaded the groceries and carried them into the building through a steel door held open by a second man. Once the groceries and all three people were inside, I moved closer, examining the windowless building from all four sides. The single door appeared to be the only way in or out, and cameras mounted at each corner allowed the occupants to monitor activity in the lot surrounding the building.

There was no way I was pulling Elka out. Not alone, and probably not with help. But there was another way to get her. Maybe.

I called Alfredo and told him I needed a second pair of eyes and another vehicle.

Alfredo left the shelter under the watchful eye of his assistants and an hour later joined me. We positioned ourselves at each end of the alley where we could watch the building, and we waited.

Shortly after eight that evening the door opened and Mason walked to the minivan. After he slid open the minivan’s side door, out trooped six young women followed by Elka. The young women squeezed into the back, and Elka settled into the front passenger seat. Alfredo and I kept a loose tail on the minivan, keeping in touch via cellphone and trading places as we went so that the driver would only spot us if he knew to look for us. In an area roughly bordered by Harry Hines Boulevard, Walnut Hill Lane, Shady Trail, and Southwell Road, Mason dropped off the young women.

After the last girl exited the minivan, Mason pulled into the drive-through lane of a fast-food restaurant. I pulled in behind him. When he rolled his window down to place his order, I ran up, reached through his window, and grabbed the back of his neck.

“I can take your order whenever you’re ready,” said a tinny female voice through the speaker.

I bounced Mason’s head off the steering wheel and shouted at Elka. “Get out! Get out now!”

She hesitated.

“I’m sorry,” said the voice. “I didn’t understand what you said. Would you please repeat your order?”

Elka opened her door. As soon as she did, Alfredo was there beside her. He pulled her out of the van, pushed her into his car, and drove away.

Mason looked at me. “You, again.”

I stepped back as Mason pushed open his door. He was too close to the speaker stand and couldn’t open it far enough to get out. By the time he realized that, I was in my SUV, driving away.

Alfredo took Elka to the shelter, and I joined them a few minutes later. Then Alfredo phoned the Dallas Police and told them of the girls we’d left behind.

After we explained who we were and that our intent was not to harm her, Elka told us what had happened during the ten years since she’d left home: how Dixie Lynn had offered her safe harbor, which turned out to be anything but; how Trevor Cash had turned her out; how she had been sent north to work for Buddy Clark; and how she had become his bottom girl. What I heard sickened me, and I knew without doubt that I had failed her. I had failed her, I had failed her mother, and I had failed every girl Dixie Lynn and Trevor Cash during the subsequent ten years.

The next morning, one of the women on Alfredo’s staff helped Elka clean up and then found her a fresh set of clothing. I returned with her to Waco.

Halfway there, Elka finally spoke. “I was so angry when I left,” she said. “I said some terrible things. I—”

“I don’t think your mother cares about any of that,” I said.

“But what about all the things I’ve done?”

“You’re still her baby girl,” I said. “She’s still your mother. Start there. You can work through everything else.”

“Yeah,” she said as she turned away and stared out the window. “Maybe.”

We didn’t speak for the rest of the drive, and soon I pounded on Anna’s front door. She jerked it open, and the look on her face let me know she wasn’t happy to see me. Then she saw her daughter standing behind me and everything changed. Anna pushed me aside, wrapped her arms around Elka, and began crying.

The moment wasn’t mine, so I left them alone.

* * *

That afternoon I removed the .38 from my gun safe. I couldn’t give it to Dixie Lynn because it would disappear, and I couldn’t give it to Templeton Walker without explaining how it had come into my possession. So, I returned it to Trevor Cash, only he didn’t realize it. Then I let Templeton know where she could find it.

After she arrested Trevor Cash and charged him with the murder of Reggie Wilson, I visited Dixie Lynn and told her what had happened.

“All this time?” she asked. “All this time I been doing what I been doing because he lied to me?”

“I think there’s more to it than that,” I told her. “I think you believed that if you turned out other girls you wouldn’t feel singled out. You wouldn’t feel special anymore. You’d believe it happened to all kinds of girls.”


“Elka Schubert remembers you,” I said, “and she’ll testify against you. She’ll tell the police, the prosecutor, and the court how you seduced her with promises of easy money and—”

Dixie Lynn interrupted. “I only gave her what she wanted, a way to escape the life she was leading.”

“What you didn’t give her was the freedom she so desired as an eighteen-year-old. You took away the little freedom she had.”

Dixie Lynn nodded. “You think I have a chance?”

“I think you’re going away for a long, long time on the trafficking charge,” I said, “but if you flip on him, Trevor will get the needle for your stepfather’s murder.”

* * *

I returned to my office, stood at my desk, and stared down at all the people going about their business on Austin Avenue. I thought about Dixie Lynn and the life she had been coerced into by the man who murdered her stepfather. I thought about Elka and Anna Schubert and how much they had to overcome before they had any hope of ever again becoming a normal family.

And I thought about what to do with dirty money.

I turned and opened my desk drawer. The sweat soaking Dixie Lynn’s money had finally dried, so I stuffed the hundreds into an envelope and mailed them to Alfredo Martinez.

Michael Bracken ( is the author of several books and more than 1,200 short stories. An Edgar Award and Shamus Award nominee, his crime fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, and many other publications. Additionally, Bracken is the editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and several anthologies, including the Anthony Award-nominated The Eyes of Texas.