Monday, August 14, 2023

A Bad Day in Boat Repo, fiction by Nick Kolakowski

Reprinted from THUGLIT 

Most of the time, clients call me on the phone. This one sent a young punk with a blonde faux-hawk and a white linen suit to the coffee shop where I always take my morning espresso and croissant. The punk framed the meeting as a request, but he let his jacket fall open so I could see the silver pistol dangling from his shoulder holster like a steel tumor. He guided me to a gray Rolls-Royce parked around the corner, where a driver in a baggy uniform grunted when I offered him a smile.

Because I had never ridden in a Rolls before, I refrained from drawing my Hellcat .380 from its ankle holster and excusing myself from the situation. “Where we headed?” I asked, fondling the backseat's plush leather.

“Cable Beach,” the punk said, reaching up to adjust his collar. His sleeve fell away from his wrist, revealing a tattooed skeleton, its bony hands strumming a banjo. He didn't look like the sort of heavy you usually found around these parts.


The ride was swanky, too, except I didn’t enjoy it at all. After two blocks we halted at an intersection, blocked by a jazz funeral clashing its way toward the cemetery. The driver threw the Rolls into reverse, but not before slamming on the horn. I cringed at how the mourners spun on us, startled, as the coffin on their shoulders tilted at a perilous angle. I've always believed that if you anger the spirits, they will capsize your life. That superstitious part of me blames everything that happened later—the fire, the bodies, the thing with the severed head—on that honking.


The mansion looked like a kid's toy on steroids, a jumble of brightly colored blocks balanced on the edge of a cliff overlooking the beach. The punk ushered me onto the concrete patio, where a ruddy man in a faded Motörhead t-shirt leaned against the glass railing.

“My name's Clive Stevens,” he said, offering a ring-studded hand to shake. “You smoke?”


“I bet it’s a ‘yes’ for some of Castro's finest.” Reaching into the back pocket of his jeans, Clive drew a leather cigar case and opened it, revealing a trio of stubby Cohibas. “Thanks for coming all the way down here. I assure you it'll be worth your while.”

I took a cigar. “Yacht?”

“Excuse me?”

“The boat in question. Is it your yacht? You seem like a yacht kind of guy, with the Rolls and all.”

Shaking his head, he drew a silver lighter and sparked it to life. “Cargo vessel,” he said. “I'm part-owner. I need it anchored off the coast here in ten days.”

I bathed the tip of my cigar in blue fire. “And where is it now?”

He lit his stogie. “Cuba, outside Havana. Someone paid the crew to walk away from the boat. Harbormaster’s charging an insane fee to release it.”

“Have your lawyer fly in,” I said. “Find the right official, get law enforcement involved if you have to. You don’t need someone like me for a squeeze-and-release job.”

“I can't do that.”

I glanced through the floor-to-ceiling windows that separated the patio from the interior of the house, noting the framed gold records on the living room wall, the fancy guitar on the stand beside the expensive leather couch. I wanted to ask what he did in the music industry, after he answered my most pressing question: “What’s the cargo?”

“Coffee beans,” he said, looking at the ocean. “Wood for furniture, some other goods.”

I snorted. “Oh, come on. You want my services, what’s the real load? You’re shipping explosives, meth precursor, that's your business, but I need to know if I’m boarding a floating bomb.”

He shrugged. “No explosives, no chemicals. It's not a danger to you. Beyond that, you can't ask.”

That made it drugs. And whatever my personal qualms about freeing controlled substances to travel from point A to B, I had six figures’ worth of debt I needed to erase. “You won't tell, it'll cost you extra. Hazard pay. I'm guessing you tried other repo guys before me?”

“I won't lie, my first call was Dennis Smith in New Orleans. Wasn’t willing to do what it took, if it came to that.”

“You mean violence.”

“He said you’ve broken some heads. I need someone who can do that, should it prove necessary. This cargo is valuable.”

“I never hurt anybody who didn't have it coming.” I heard a foot scrape on the concrete behind me, turned to see the punk holding out a cheap phone. I asked him: “What’re you trying to give me?”

“Pre-paid,” the punk said. “The number in the contacts will reach us. You should head to Cuba now.”

“Hold on, shorty. I haven’t said yes to the gig.”

The punk did that thing with his jacket again, sweeping it back to show off the gun. In retrospect, throwing him over the railing would have saved me a lot of trouble. Instead I decided to play nice. Jamming the burning tip of my cigar into his knuckles made him drop the phone and yelp. Before he could recover enough to do something stupid, I darted a hand into his jacket, snatched his pistol, and tossed it into the ocean.

Clive burst into wheezy laughter. “Man,” he said, clapping like a seal, “I should pay you to be my bodyguard instead.”

“Pick it up,” I told the punk, nudging the phone with my toe.

The punk stood there, trembling with rage.

“You'll have to excuse my associate here,” Clive said, sounding tired. “He’s more used to working the door at concerts than dealing with professionals. Which is why he’s going to stop this bigger-balls shit and give you that phone.”

Bending over, the punk retrieved the phone and handed it to me, his eyes burning. He would have killed me right then, with his bare hands, if I’d afforded him the opportunity. I slipped the device into my pocket and turned to Clive. “I'll think about it,” I said, “and give you a call. By the way, what sort of music you produce?”

He flashed a tight smile. “Mostly pop, for my sins. But I'm ninety-percent retired. Don’t leave me hanging about the boat, okay?”

Neither of them offered to escort me out. As I descended the front steps, the driver stepped to the curb and opened the rear door of the Rolls, but I declined his silent proposal. A walk along the beach would give me time to think about how I could make some money without ending up in a Cuban jail, or buried in a ditch with a bullet in my skull.


Some boat-repo folks prefer stealth. They offer a case of cheap rum to the marina guards, wait until everybody’s sloshed, swim out to the client's boat, and cut the anchor chains. With a little luck, they’re ten miles into international waters before anyone sobers up.

I never liked the idea of playing James Bond in a harbor full of sharks. My favorite repo trick is dressing in a customs-official uniform and arguing my way onto the target vessel. If there are still passengers or guards onboard after castoff, I offer them a choice: hop into the lifeboat for a quick float to land, or stay quiet until we reach our destination. In order to keep disagreements to a minimum, everybody in my crew carries a gun.

After my walk, I met up at my preferred tourist trap with Limonov, my second-in-command for the past ten years. He sat at a picnic bench in the back, fifty empty shot glasses stacked in front of him, two frat-boys snoring loudly on the concrete at his feet. “They challenged me to a drinking contest,” he said, seemingly stone-cold sober, as I took a seat across from him. “Looks like I won a hundred bucks.”

“How many shots did you down?” I asked, astounded at the city of glasses.

“Of vodka? None. I had Shirley pour me water.” He nodded at the nearby waitress. “Those poor bastards on the floor beside you? I think they did perhaps twenty-five each.”

“And during breakfast, no less. I'm impressed,” I said. “I got a potential job for us.”

When I finished spinning my tale, Limonov leaned back, hands folded over his substantial gut. “You think the cargo’s still there?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Less likely by the minute. You know a boat wasn’t stripped down in a week?”

“So it’s a setup. Say we head down there, cut this bad boat loose, there's no cargo onboard? Clive tells his business partners we stole the goods, covers his ass.”

“And whoever Clive’s working with, they won’t care who took the cargo,” I said, after downing a stray shot left untouched. Although I'm no fan of drinking before noon, the alcohol soothed my humming nerves. “I bet they’re not in the business of hearing all sides out, you know? Clive blames us for this, they kill us, but they also kill Clive. And not cleanly, no sir. They’ll make him eat his own nuts like oysters.”

Limonov guffawed. “Thanks for that wonderful mental image.”

I found another stray shot. Down the hatch. Screw it. “Worst part is, Clive is such a tool, he knows that’s exactly what'll happen, but he’s hoping against hope it’ll work out. Like some little kid believing in fairies.”

“So we walk away,” Limonov said. “It happens. They can't all be winners.”

“Hold up now. Are you allergic to cash?”

“Why you always have to get cute like this?”

I chuckled. “Because if the coke or whatever’s still there, Clive will pay us a lot of money to get the boat back. Especially if we reopen negotiations en-route. Even if there’s just an outside chance, I say it’s worth checking into. We’ll just go in quietly.”

“The last time we messed around with a drug shipment, I got a bullet in my shoulder.”

“And how many times did you get laid with that scar? ‘Hey baby, want to see where a nine-millimeter hit me?’ You ought to pay me for that.”

“Whatever.” Leaning over, Limonov pulled a scuffed billfold from the back pocket of the nearest frat boy and extracted five crisp twenties. Placed the wallet back. Stood. “This joint is officially tapped out. Let me buy you lunch at the Lobster Shack, you can tell me about whatever half-assed plan you’re cooking up.”


The flight from the Bahamas to Cuba is a short one. Five hours after phoning Clive and agreeing to free his boat later in the week, Limonov and I stood at the curb of the Malecón, the road that separates the ocean from Havana's crumbling beauty, negotiating with a couple of teenagers for a ride in their cherry-red '59 Chevy.

Another one of our merry crew, Marie, stayed behind in Nassau to watch Clive. An hour after my phone call, the punk in the linen suit left the mansion in the Rolls, headed for the airport. Marie lost him at the security checkpoint, but I had a good idea where he was headed.

There were other reasons to feel anxious. Waiting to board our Cubana flight, I downloaded a trove of Clive-related articles to my phone. The man had made a considerable fortune producing a rock band called the Dead Wakes. There was just one problem: the Dead Wakes released their last album five years ago. Since then, Clive had gone through a divorce, a lengthy stint in rehab, and a couple of arrests for drunk driving. Nothing like a desperate man to make things a little more exciting.

Well, you signed up for this, dude.

Indeed. I was a desperate man, myself.

“How much time you buy us?” Limonov asked. Behind him, one of the teenagers opened the Chevy's hood and leaned in, banging on the engine with his fists until it kicked to life, the tailpipe farting black smoke.

“A lot. I told Clive we wouldn’t get here until tomorrow,” I said, climbing into the backseat with my duffel. The perky flunkies at José Martí Airport scan your bags when you enter the country, just in case you're trying to import American imperialism, which makes it difficult to carry in my favorite tools, not to mention my guns.

Difficult, but not impossible.

The port was a standard-issue Caribbean shipping hub: a maze of gantries and massive cargo vessels, along with a few rusted fishing trawlers. Limonov and I had dressed in our finest suits, with fake business cards in our pockets that announced we were buyers in the market for a boat. The harbormaster, likely the same prick who told Clive that he needed to pay up or have his boat chopped to pieces, met us at the gate.

“Are you the men who called?” he asked in Spanish.

“We are,” said Limonov, in his perfect español. “We have an auction coming up. Some clients looking for cargo vessels.”

“Excellent. We have a good one, just came in.” He pointed down the pier, at a small container ship with no name on its freshly painted hull.

As the harbormaster led us on a tour of the upper deck, I excused myself to hit the lavatory. Aside from the new paint job, the boat's exterior was ill-kept, and the inside was worse—from the rusty bulkheads to the fraying carpets. I found three men in the galley, and wordlessly peeled off some American twenties into their hands before heading below. As I headed down to the engine room, I pulled a lighter from my pocket to brighten my way through the dim, stinking space.

You can paint a vessel as many times as you want, but even the most experienced boatjackers sometimes forget one crucial detail: the serial number on the engine, which matched the one that Clive had recited to me over the phone. With that settled, I climbed to the cargo level, weaving past shrink-wrapped pallets to reach the drums lining the inside hull. On the way I retrieved a pinch-bar, which I used to pry the lid off a random drum, discovering it filled with green, unroasted coffee beans. I sank an arm into the beans and found a bundle the size of a football, mummified in duct-tape.

Nipping the edge of the bundle with my teeth, I poured some white powder onto my finger, rubbed it on my gums. Tasted like baking soda. A second bundle yielded the same thing.

“Good going, Clive,” I said. At least if the Policía Nacional Revolucionaria nailed us during this little caper, I could offer to bake them a cake.

It also meant we needed to leave, right now. I ascended to sunlight, pausing to take off my shoe and bang the heel against a railing until it slid free, revealing a hollow into which I’d tucked a few pieces of steel before our plane left Nassau. Plucking free those bits, I reattached the heel and continued upwards, fumbling with my belt until the oversized buckle popped loose. The buckle folded neatly on a discreet hinge, forming a frame into which I popped the loose metal: hammer, trigger and firing pin.

From my suit pocket I drew my keys, attached to a lucky rabbit's foot. I unscrewed the brass cap from the fur and tipped a .45-caliber bullet into my palm, slipped it into the smooth chamber of my zip gun, and cocked the hammer back. The weapon had barely any accuracy but it looked intimidating, which is what usually counted. As always at moments like this, I crossed myself before heading through the hatch that led to the deck.

Limonov stood aft, nodding vaguely as the harbormaster tried to convince him that a cluster of slowly leaking oil barrels along the starboard side was nothing to worry about. I tapped my lieutenant on the elbow and said: “Baking soda.”

Eyebrows raised, he looked at the zip gun in my hand and nodded. “Can't all be winners.”

We turned and headed for the gangplank, leaving a confused harbormaster in our wake. Thirty minutes to get back to Havana, and we could sit tight for a day or two in El Floridita, sipping daiquiris before flying back to Nassau. I would call Clive and tell him that his seller had screwed him over, and that freeing the boat was officially his problem.

It was a good plan, ruined when the punk in the linen suit came up the gangplank, followed by four Cubans holding very big machetes.


The punk was startled when he saw me. “Why are you here?”

I pointed the zip gun at his chest. No sense in subtlety. “Clive send you?” I asked.

“Clive's dead,” the punk said. “He wasn't cut out for this work.”

“You kill him?”

The punk shrugged. An ocean breeze flared his jacket, revealing a 9mm pistol jammed in his waistband. That meant he had better connections down here than I did, if someone was willing to risk jail to lend him a firearm.

“Sorry you came all this way, kid,” I said, “but the ‘coke’ onboard is a lot of baking soda. Let me guess, this was Clive's first deal?”

The punk nodded, his face tense with worry, and I felt a little sorry for him. When you double-cross and kill your boss, you expect some sort of return. He stepped back, blocking the gangplank while his Cubans spread out, circling us just outside of blade-range. Beside me, Limonov picked up a length of heavy chain that someone had left on the deck and began twirling the end slowly, almost contemplatively. The harbormaster, deciding that cowardice beat valor any day of the week, disappeared below.

“We’re going to leave now,” I said. “Nobody wants to die today.”

He won’t use the gun, I thought, with his people standing so close to us.

I was wrong.

The punk thought he was the second coming of Doc Holliday. I read it too late in his eyes, just as his hand darted for his weapon. I squeezed the trigger of my zip gun, aiming for his center mass, and his shoulder spat red.

Screaming in rage and pain, the punk still managed to yank out his pistol and fire three wild shots in my direction. Two of those bullets holed the starboard drums that Limonov had examined with the harbormaster, and black oil spurted across the deck. That was bad, but not quite as bad as what happened next, when the punk’s third bullet tore out the throat of the Cuban standing to Limonov’s left.

The Cuban fell, gagging blood, his machete sparking off the oily metal at his feet.

The explosion turned the three other Cubans into burning scarecrows. Limonov was luckier. The force of the blast lifted him off his feet and into me, the two of us tumbling clear of the flames. I caught a glimpse of the punk airborne against the blue sky, his legs and arms flailing, his linen suit ablaze as he plunged into the ocean beyond the pier.

“You okay?” I yelled at Limonov, shaking my head in a futile effort to make my ears stop ringing.

Limonov looked pretty far from okay—his eyebrows were singed away, the hair on the left side of his head had been reduced to a pile of ash, and his beautiful suit was a smoking mess. Nonetheless he gave me a hearty thumbs-up before scrambling to his feet, retrieving one of the discarded knives as he checked the Cubans until he found one halfway alive.

“Where was he going after this?” Limonov asked in Spanish, pressing the knife lightly against the man's reddened throat. “Did he have a boat?”

“Airport,” the man wheezed.

“No.” Limonov pressed the knife down a little harder, scoring the flesh. “You expect me to believe he was that stupid?”

Meanwhile I knelt to the other men, checking their pockets for anything useful, finding nothing except some Cuban pesos and a few worthless IDs along with a plastic key-fob that might have belonged to a boat. We needed to leave right now.

With the knife biting into his skin, the burned Cuban reconsidered his options. “Go-fast boat,” he said. “Three kilometers west, the swamp, okay?”

“Crew?” Limonov said.

“Just us and the norteamericano.”

“Okay,” Limonov said, removing the knife. “But if you’re lying, we’ll find out.”

No way could we leave out of José Martí, not with our burned faces and scorched clothing. I waved the key-fob at Limonov and we ran down the gangplank and out of the harbor, finding the two boys standing beside their '59 Chevy, babbling in excitement as they pointed at the greasy black smoke curling toward the sun.

An ambulance and a police car passed us on the main road, neither slowing, and we made it to the swamp in good time. “Burn’s not as sexy as a bullet-hole,” said Limonov in the backseat, picking at the peeling skin on his hands.

“We're alive,” I replied, doing my best to keep my voice from trembling. Sure, I had jammed a few guns in faces over the years, and even beat down a couple folks in the course of repossessing a ship. But never had an operation gone so wrong. I thought again about the jazz funeral, the mourners frozen in shock, and my tingling skin curdled into gooseflesh.


It took three days to work our way back to Nassau, with a stopover in a Miami clinic so a friend could stitch us back together, followed by a visit to my tailor for some new duds. I had almost no money, because the punk had killed Clive before the latter could transfer funds into my account, but Limonov spotted me for the suits. The television in the tailor’s waiting room reported four dead Cubans in a mysterious explosion outside Havana, and I knew in my gut that the punk had survived his Evel Knievel routine over the harbor.

While Limonov headed to a bar to chat up some young lasses and down a few drinks, I stopped by a church for communion, followed by a voodoo storefront, where an old woman tapped my shoulders with a severed rooster claw before sprinkling me with blood. I figured that balanced my karma a little better.

Our feet had barely touched the ground in Nassau when my phone rang. “Are you okay?” Marie asked.

“Feeling a little barbequed,” I said. “Other than that, fine. You find the bodyguard?”

“Not yet, but he's definitely back here.”

“How do you know?”

“Shooting over the hill last night. The Coral Lounge, yeah? Young white guy walks in, his face all messed up, pops a bullet into the back of another man’s skull. Description sounded like your boy.”

“Who was the other man?”

“Cop who told me didn’t know, but said he was Latin. Sorry, that's all I got.”

“Do me a huge favor?” I said. “Watch Clive’s house tonight, from the beach side. I'll be there later.”

After I hung up, Limonov asked: “We going home?”

“Sure, after we make a stop.”

We parked the car in front of a beautiful colonnaded house on Baillou Hill Road, a stone's throw from the pink-walled Government House, and while Limonov smoked on the sidewalk, I knocked on the stately door half-hidden in greenery. The maid who answered guided me through spotless hallways to the rear patio, where I found Emmanuel sipping French-press coffee while perusing a copy of the New York Times Sunday edition.

“What can I do for you?” he asked without looking up.

Emmanuel had paid me four times over the years to retrieve boats with questionable cargo. One of those runs had taken place outside of Port-au-Prince, and I had earned a hefty bonus by fending off a couple of harbor pirates with a Kalashnikov until Limonov could pilot us away from the coast.

“Some guy got shot over the hill last night,” I said. “I was wondering if he was connected with you?”

Emmanuel lowered the paper so I could stare into his glacier-blue eyes. “Why are you wondering?”

“Because I think he was shot by someone who took a shot at me, too.”

Slapping the paper on the table, Emmanuel leaned back, lacing his hands behind his head. “The dead gentleman is an acquaintance of mine, yes. He hailed from Bogotá, where I understand he served as an intermediary for many important people.”

“You know if he did a deal with a guy named Clive? Record producer, lives over on Cable Beach?”

He smiled without an ounce of warmth. “Now you're asking questions you shouldn’t.”

I'll take that as a yes, I thought. “Clive’s bodyguard's the guy who tried to kill me,” I said. “Clive tried to do a deal, got in over his head. But I think you knew that.” Nodding my thanks, I turned and left. Midway to the car, I realized my hands were shaking a little. Never get involved in drugs again, I told myself. No matter how much you need the cash.


Marie patted the cool sand beside her. “Sit down, love,” she said, reaching into her designer handbag. “You ought to take a moment, look at the stars. They’ll make all your problems feel insignificant.”

The beach around us was empty, cold and bright in the moonlight. I remained standing as I craned my head upwards, studying the black mass of Clive’s mansion at the top of the cliff. “Any people, movement?”

“That’s you, all business as usual.” She sighed. “Nothing all night except that irritating noise. Hear it? It keeps fucking repeating.”

In the pause between waves I thought I caught the faintest hint of music, three jangling guitar notes followed by the thump of what might have been drums. “I hear something,” I said.

Marie's hand emerged from the bag with a .38 pistol. “Shall we go in? There's a gate down here, unlocked, and a whole lot of stairs going up.”

“Did you unlock it?”

“No, and I've been here since dusk. Seen nobody.”

“Stay here, cover my rear. If I yell for you, come up.”

“Playing action hero again?”

“If everything went the way I think it did,” I said, “someone else played action hero for us.” Drawing the pistol from my ankle holster, I walked over to the small iron gate in the base of the cliff, eased it open, and started up the wooden stairway cut into the porous rock. As I ascended, I heard that sound again, definitely music: twang-twang-twang…thump. Marie was right—it was irritating, a bad tune that threatened to elbow its way into my head and lodge there like a barnacle.

The stairs ended on the far edge of the patio, around the corner from where I had met Clive the other day. I paused for a moment at the top, listening for movement, but that damn twang-twang-twang…thump made it difficult to hear anything furtive. Screw it, I thought, coming fast around the house's blind angle.

My gun-sights found a giant at the railing, silhouetted against the deeper night, his shaven head faintly haloed by stars.

“Hello,” I said, my voice calm despite the adrenaline flooding my blood, my heart hammering against my ribs.

Plastic rustled as the giant shifted. He wore a one-piece coverall with a zipper up the front. A hazmat suit. “Hello,” he said, his voice soft, melodic.

He seemed unconcerned about my gun.

“Is the kid here?” I asked.

“Yes, but he’s indisposed,” the giant said. It was hard to discern his features in the dark, but I could see the starlight glistening on his bare hands, because they were wet.

I swallowed, wondering if my bullets would stop his planet-like mass, even if I fired the whole clip into his torso. “And who are you?”

“I often do contract work for individuals with a lot to lose, and a lot to spend. You know how that is. We're kindred souls, you and I.”

“If you say so.”

The enormous head dipped low, the face eaten by darkness. “What you’ll see inside might affect you in a deep way. Ordinarily I wouldn’t apologize for that, but I've been in a very self-reflective mood lately,” he said. “I want you to know that I’m not an animal. No matter how bad it seems, everything I did in there was calculated for a specific effect. To send a message as wide as possible. To speak to people who only understand one language.”

Nothing like a friendly chat with a lunatic. “Can I ask you something, no disrespect?”

“Of course.”

“Why the fake coke? Why screw Clive over like that?”

“My client already has his own distribution channels, quite profitable. The hoax was a joke, a friendly way of dissuading an amateur from going where he did not belong. Of course, Clive's employee decided to take matters into his own hands. I apologize, but I really must go.”

With that, the giant turned and disappeared around the front of the house, leaving a smeared trail of footprints. Footprints with no treads, because he wore plastic covers over his size-15 boots.

My forehead prickling with sweat, I reached down and slipped my pistol back into its ankle holster. I could have walked away; I knew in my heart that the punk had died inside the house. But the first rule of my business is you need to double-check on everything, no matter how dangerous or stomach-churning.

Taking a deep breath, I stepped through the open glass door off the patio, pausing to let my eyes adjust to the gloom. Through the wide doorway on my left came that awful twang-twang-twang…thump, much louder now, along with a faint blue glow.

I walked that way.

Like all music producers, Clive had an impressive listening rig: a McIntosh turntable on its own mahogany sideboard, with the record platter and front panel lit up like a descending UFO. In its spooky light I could see the sleek tone-arm bumping against a thick, lumpy object placed at the center of a slowly spinning record. With each bump, the massive speakers at either end of the sideboard thumped hard, stretching my already-frayed nerves to the breaking point.

The thing atop the record spun another quarter-revolution, revealing blackened eyes, a squashed nose, lips crusted with dark blood.

The punk's head.

“Like I told your boss,” I said. “I wasn’t the right person for the job.”

As if in response, the record-needle tapped cooling flesh again, the speakers hissing loud with spirits.

Nick Kolakowski is the author of "Love & Bullets," "Absolute Unit," and other works of crime and terror. His shorter fiction has also appeared in Dark Moon Digest, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, and various anthologies. He lives and writes in NYC. 

Monday, August 7, 2023

Proper Disposal, fiction by Margaret Karmazin

The inspector uncovered the old septic tank, something the new owner wanted done. Apparently, this new guy understood the need for an up to code system, something the old timers around the lake had rarely understood and had often used buried barrels with sewage leading to nowhere, probably directly into the lake.

“Likely no leach field,” muttered the inspector. “Even if there is one, which I highly doubt; knowing these old lake lots, it wouldn’t be a hundred feet from the lake so wouldn’t be usable anyway. You’ll have to convert this thing to a holding tank. But let’s see what’s in it.”

He pried up the lids and was suddenly silent.

“What’s the matter?” said the new owner.

“Uh….take a look yourself, Mr. Kelly.”

What Mr. Kelly saw was the remains of a body. A most unappealing sight.

The inspector dug out his phone to call the police.

“I-I think it’s a woman,” Kelly said. “The shoes.”


Some four years earlier, Rich Rizzo, called up his friend Peter Kozak and said, “I’m selling the cottage.”

Shocked after all the work Rich had put into constructing it and knowing how much the man loved his weekends at the lake, Peter said, “What? Why?”

“San Palmians are moving in next door.”

“What’s wrong with San Palmians?” Peter asked. “We went there on vacation a couple of years ago and the people were great.”

“Pete, you know I own apartment buildings in Newark. I know what I’m talking about. For some reason, our area has had an influx of them the past few years. They have constant barbecues going in the parking lots and play loud music all day and night long, bothering the other tenants – sick old people, mothers with babies, they don’t care. Believe me, they’ll do the same thing here. There goes my peaceful cove and fishing!”

When Peter told his wife what Rich had said, Liz replied, “He’s such a bigot! Good riddance if he wants to move, who cares?”

Then “the San Palmians” moved in and started to work on the place.

“What are they doing?” asked Liz.

Peter, who rode around the lake road daily, kept an expert eye on things. Retired now, he had been a commercial plumbing contractor in New Jersey before moving to Pennsylvania. He had built their own home and loved the peace of living on Fisher Lake.

“His name is Fabio Braga,” he said. “Apparently, he’s turning that little cottage into a three-story affair with five bathrooms, a bunch of bedrooms and two full decks.”

“Whoa,” said Liz. “How many people are in his family?”

“I think he has brothers,” Peter said. “Maybe they’re all planning to come up at the same time, who knows?”

It turned out that Fabio Braga was building an Air BnB. And soon extended families and church groups were renting the place for weeks or long weekends.

“Oh my god, that horrible music!” exclaimed Liz. “It’s so loud and clangy and blares from ten in the morning to ten at night! If only they’d play something I like - soul or blues or oldies, whatever. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such annoying stuff!”

“I guess it’s San Palmian.”

“Well, I looked up San Palmian music on Youtube and it’s actually pretty nice. That crap they’re playing must be from the bottom of the San Palmian barrel! So rude of them to assume we all want to listen to that racket! I hate to say it but Rich knew what he was talking about.”

That wasn’t all the San Palmian’s were doing. They broke every rule in the book on how to get along with neighbors around a lake.

“Well,” said Peter to his next-door neighbor, “What happened to a peaceful summer night with the dark starry sky overhead? I like to sit outside and watch it – you see falling stars and what all. But how can we do that now with all their blazing lights on all the time? Looks like a freakin’ cruise ship over there!”

“Not to mention,” said the neighbor, “that they feel they have to set off firecrackers every Saturday night. I have fibromyalgia; I need my sleep. Aren’t there any laws to prevent this?”

An additional problem was that the new Airbnb had an extremely inadequate septic system. The former owners had had no real understanding of its faults and believed that just upgrading the septic tank solved the problem. They did that, but then all they had was a fancier septic tank without a leach field and with a pipe leading into the regular ground facing the lake.

“Two Airbnbs now,” one member said with exasperation at the next lake association meeting. Right next to each other, though I can’t imagine how the Johnsons who bought Rich’s house are doing being right next to that Fabio circus. His site on Airbnb describes it as a peaceful cove for a quiet weekend, but wow.”

“I don’t hear any noise from the Braga place,” said Wendy Miller who lived on the Braga side of the lake several houses down.

“Nothing?” said Liz. “Seriously? It sounds like a full volume band that never rests. Twelve hours at a time!”

“Don’t hear it,” persisted Wendy.

“I don’t either,” said her neighbor, with an insinuating tone, implying that Liz was making the whole thing up.

Peter stepped in. “I think the problem is that the sound travels directly across the lake. You people have trees between you and Braga’s that muffle the sound.” He didn’t like the smug expression on Wendy’s face.

“Well, we don’t have a problem,” insisted her neighbor.

“I think we could mention it to him,” Wendy said. “I am sure if he knew he was bothering people, he’d turn it off!”

“Somehow I don’t think he will,” said Liz, “but if you think so, we’ll talk to him. Then we’ll see if you’re right.”

Like most of the lake association members, Fabio Braga did not attend the monthly Saturday meetings. For one thing, the times he himself as opposed to his renters appeared at the lake were usually during the week, during which he continued to upgrade the property, now having filled up most of the small lot with the building and driveway which could hold six cars closely packed in. The offending septic tank was buried in the small space between his house and what was once Rich’s place. It was only a short distance from the well there, which was against state regulations.

Peter, association secretary, went to talk to Fabio the following week. “Sorry to bother you,” he said to the man who was covering what was left of the ground with fake grass carpeting. “Some, of the residents here were disturbed by that loud music the last renting group played all the time. A lot of us who’ve lived here for years enjoy the quiet of nature. You know, bird sounds, fish slapping in the water, the quiet tick-tick of someone reeling in a fish. Also, some of us are old or get up to go to work early and need our sleep.”

Fabio, who seemed friendly, said, “It won’t happen again. And they weren’t renting; they’re my friends.”

The two shared a few more words and Peter left to report to Liz.

“We’ll see,” she said, being of a skeptical nature. “And I seriously doubt that those weren’t renters. Otherwise, why does he advertise on Airbnb where it shows the calendar with the dates people are there grayed out?”

The skeptic proved to be right. It wasn’t long before another group almost as large were at Fabio’s house for a week and they played the same clamorous music morning till night. Little kids darted about on tiny motor bikes, scaring the hell out of drivers on the lake road. Fire crackers boomed in the night, kids screamed in the water, drunken men yelled at the top of their lungs.

Peter’s friend Manny quickly crossed the lake on his fishing raft and asked one of the people there if they were renters and the person said that they were.

A lake association board meeting that would evolve into a yelling match was quickly held after Liz sent out a sarcastic group email suggesting that if people are going to force their music down everyone else’s throats, could they please make it soul or blues?

“Why don’t we just give Fabio the courtesy of asking him to lower the music instead of going behind his back?” said Wendy, all huffed up and madly typing into her phone. She was tall and blonde, wearing false eyelashes and a crisp white blouse tucked into chino pants, though being probably fifty pounds overweight, she would be better suited to stretch slacks and a slimming tunic.

“He has already been asked and he ignored it,” said Liz.

Manny repeated this.

Tempers rose. Wendy scowled and worked at her phone.

“Peter and I are going to test the lake water near his home for e coli,” announced Manny. “If the lake association doesn’t want to pay for it, we’ll pay ourselves.”

“And,” added Peter, “while I enjoy swimming in the lake very much, I’m not doing it anymore until we get the results back. Not interested in getting ‘monsters inside me’ or skin eating bacteria.”

Wendy worked herself up into a red-faced snit. “You people are horrible! Fabio is a nice person! He doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment!”

“Yeah?” said Manny. “If he’s so nice, why is he renting to crowds of people with a septic system designed for two and probably polluting the lake? How come he lies and says all those people aren’t renters?”

Wendy huffed out of the meeting while yelling something unintelligible and pointing at Peter and Manny.

“Does she never shut up?” Manny asked. “No wonder her husband never says a word.”

Peter, who continued his almost nightly drive around the lake, reported to Liz, “Wendy was at Fabio’s and the two of them deep in conversation. They were standing a foot apart and she had her hand on his arm.”

“Ah ha!” said Liz. “I suspected as much.”

“Why on earth did you suspect whatever you’re suspecting?”

“Just a hunch,” Liz said.

“She’s married.”

“To someone who never opens his mouth.”

Manny stopped by. “What the living crap?” he shouted. “That devil-woman called up the county regulations office and told them this whole thing was taken care of! Nothing more to worry about, she claimed. After all my running around government offices and figuring out where to report septic system abuses! I swear….now I have to do all that over again!”

“Devil Woman is a perfect description,” said Liz. “I’m imagining her right now upside down inside a septic tank. I mean since she thinks she knows more about them than you and Peter.”

“Good idea,” said Manny. “She’d look much better in that position than standing up with her mouth flapping!”

All of this (or most of it) would become known to the police after the unthinkable happened. They would hear it told by the main involved characters around Fisher Lake and those that weren’t directly involved but just enjoyed gossip. Except of course, the dead woman. No one would hear her version of things.


The two detectives arrived from Montbleu within the hour of the inspector’s and Mr. Kelly’s discovery.

“You’re lucky we were in the area,” said Lieutenant Char Perez. “The Sergeant here was just getting a root canal and I thought it best to drive him.”

Sergeant Booker, tall, black and resembling a movie star, had a numb mouth and slightly drooping lip.

“Feeling all right, Booker?” Char snapped and he mumbled in reply.

“Okay,” she said, looking down the hole, “the medical examiner is just behind us. She’ll get the vic out and off to her lair to perform an autopsy. I doubt there are identifying material on her but on the way, we found out who’s been missing around here for the past almost four years.”

“Yeah?” said the inspector. Mr. Kelly stood silently by.

She consulted her phone. “Wendy Miller. Or to be precise, Wendy Clattery Jamison Miller. Maiden name, former married name, etc. She lived at 79 Fisher Lake Drive. with her father, now deceased and husband, Kevin Miller. He has since sold the house and moved to Pittston. We have his number.”

Mr. Kelly looked more alarmed than he did a minute ago. “She went missing?”

Booker tried to talk but clearly his mouth wasn’t ready yet. Char shushed him.

“She up and disappeared on a Friday evening. Her husband was in Texas being trained for a position with the gas company here. He’s now living in the attached house next door to his mother. Anyway, there were several witnesses that he was in Texas at the time of his wife’s disappearance.”

“What about calls?” asked the inspector. “Weren’t they in touch by phone? If not, wouldn’t the husband be worried?”

“Apparently, they’d been arguing off and on and weren’t exactly speaking. He’d said things had been rocky lately. All this is public knowledge. It was in the papers back then.”

“I wouldn’t have seen it,” said Kelly. “We live in Trenton, New Jersey right now. We were hoping to retire here but now I’m having serious doubts about this septic system, not to mention rotting human bodies in it.”

“Can’t say I blame you,” said Char. “I’m curious about this system. Is this a holding or septic tank? My dad once explained all that stuff to me. With a septic tank, you gotta have a leach field, right?”

“The seller didn’t say anything about it,” said Kelly.

“So, you bought a place out in the country on a lake and never knew what kind of waste disposal system it has?”

“I just assumed-“

Char thought she heard Booker snort, but was afraid to look at him.

“Okay, who was the owner before?”

Kelly was sheepish now. Dulce Braga. She lives in New Jersey.”

“I’ll need her contact information, Mr. Kelly.”

A white van pulled up and out piled the CSI team, led by Char’s former nemesis, Robin Sloan. Lately though, Char had softened towards her since the medical examiner had lost her politician husband to Covid. The woman, usually meticulously dressed, now looked a bit disheveled. “Septic tank, huh,” she said. “Delightful.”

“Maybe they should pay you more,” Char joked.

Booker said nothing. Char knew he was feeling frustrated. His cheek was swollen a bit.

The crew raised the body out and laid it on plastic, then erected their tent around it.

Char and Booker sat in their car while Char ate a peanut butter sandwich and Booker looked miserable.

“You can drink, right?” said Char. She handed him a water bottle, which he tried to consume but a trickle ran down his chin and onto his immaculate cornflower blue shirt. Char refrained from chuckling.

After a half hour or so, Robin signaled for them. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say she was strangled. Almost breaking her neck. But so much has decomposed, I can’t be certain. She was blonde; there was still some hair. Sixty-eight inches tall. Dental records will enlighten us. Her teeth look good; she took care of them. Guessing in her forties by the looks of them. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can be more definite.”

Char thanked her and looked up Dulce Braga in Jersey City. “Well, whaddya know? She popped right up.” She pressed in the number, identified herself and described what was going on.

“I haven’t been there for almost three years,” the woman said.

“You and your husband owned it together?”


“Might as well tell me all you know. All I have to do is visit the courthouse.”

“Yes, Fabio. He is my husband - was, I mean.” The woman had a thick Hispanic accent.

“You’re divorced?”

“Yeah, finally. He left me back then, was in lust or something with that woman.” She said “woman” as if spitting the word across the room. Then for ages we couldn’t sell the damn place since I didn’t know where he was.”

“And now you do?”

“For a while, long enough for him to sign the place over and then he disappeared again. I think he went back to San Palma. I haven’t heard from him and don’t want to.”

“You bought him out?”

Dulce hesitated. “Well…we’d hardly paid off anything. There was a mortgage. There wasn’t much to sign over.”

“He maybe felt it owed it to you? After being in love with someone else?”

“Maybe,” Dulce said, so quietly that Char almost couldn’t hear her.

“Who was the woman?”

Dulce came back to life. “Wendy Miller, that evil bitch who worked on him till he gave in! Big fat American whore!”

“Wendy Miller,” repeated Char. She glanced over at Booker who was gingerly feeling his jaw.

“Yeah, thought she was Queen of the Lake! Always sticking her nose in other people’s business!”

“Thanks for the name, Dulce,” Char said. “I’ll be in touch if I need you again.”

“Wendy Miller?” said Booker, who was beginning to sound more normal.

“Pretty sure she’s the vic,” said Char. “Let’s go visit the husband. You feel alright?”

“Not a hundred percent,” he said, “but good enough.”

Her partner was the best, but she didn’t flood him with praise. She knew she was half in love with him, but better he didn’t know. One good thing, since he and his wife separated, he didn’t mind working overtime. Even though he had a large extended family, she could tell he was lonely.

“Longish ride to Pittston. I’ll call him now.”

Kevin’s mother answered the door. Though she must have been nearing eighty, she seemed vigorous. “Kevin’s on his way home from work,” she said. “Have some iced tea?”

They agreed. She motioned them to the kitchen and waved at the table for them to sit. Booker’s mouth had its feeling back and he looked ravenous. As if reading his mind, Mrs. Miller sat a plate of peanut butter cookies in front of him. “Eat up,” she ordered.

“Mrs. Miller, what can you tell me about your former daughter-in-law?”

The lady looked about ready to burst. She nudged the cookie plate closer to Booker who obliged her by stuffing one into his mouth to chew on one side, and sat down. “Never could stand her,” she said firmly. “She was a trouble maker from the get-go.”

“How so?” asked Char.

She saw Booker go for another cookie. Normally, he was reserved, but since he hadn’t been able to eat since early morning, she understood his behavior.

“A busybody, a know-it-all, batshit crazy. You know they kicked her out of some women’s club up in Montblue. I don’t know what it was but she was getting everyone riled up. I knew about her from when she was in high school. I worked in the office there a few years. If a bunch of girls were ranting and raving about something, you knew right off that Wendy was in the middle of it. When Kevin said he was involved with her, I tried to warn him. He was easy pickings after his divorce. I had already moved down here to be near my sister and couldn’t do much to stop it. They lived together a couple of years and then up and got married, a quickie thing, justice of the peace. Told me after the deed was done. His own mother.”

“Did you know about her affair?”

“You mean the thing with the San Palmian? The one running that giant Airbnb that got people all riled up?”

“That’s the one,” said Booker, now able to talk clearly. Good to hear his rich, deep voice.

“Of course, I know about it. Kevin was on the phone to me about five times a day. At first, he didn’t suspect anything, just thought she was defending the underdog to the bigots around the lake. Some of them were all pissed off about the giant hotel he had going with a septic system designed for a small family, not to mention the loud music and screaming kids. I don’t think they gave two hoots if the offender was San Palmian, Chinese or Martian, they just wanted the noise stopped and no sewage leaking into the lake. But she tried to come off as Miss Holier-Than-Thou and then, I guess she and that Fabio were together too many times supposedly working on the problem and one thing led to another.”

“Did Kevin leave her right away?” asked Char.

“He put up with it for a month or two and then took a job with the natural gas company. They sent him to Texas for training. He was down there for about five months. It was about four months in to that when Wendy up and disappeared, we assumed with Fabio. His wife claimed that wasn’t true. She kept running the Airbnb off and on for a little while and said her husband had had a nervous breakdown and was recuperating with his mother back in San Palma.”

“So,” said Booker, “during all that time, no one saw Fabio at the lake?” The cookies had disappeared but one.

“That’s right.”

“And Kevin can prove he was in Texas up till her disappearance.”

"We proved all that to the police back then when she vanished,” said Mrs. Miller. “I take it you two weren’t on the force then?”

“I worked in Easton then,” said Char, “and Booker was in Scranton. They hired us two and a half years ago when they expanded here. But I’ll check the records from back then.”

Kevin Miller arrived and told them the same story he'd told the police over three years before.

“Thanks so much, Mrs. Miller. And for the cookies,” said Char when they were done.

The old lady got up without a word, opened a drawer and took out a zip bag into which she dropped a pile of the cookies and handed them to Booker. He smiled crookedly and accepted the gift.


At the Spring Diner in Montblue, Char chowed down on a blue cheese burger while Booker, a health nut according to Char, ate a green salad with grilled chicken. “Okay,” she said, “Kevin checked out from Officer Wolfe’s notes. We could call Kevin's old bosses down there but I think Wolfe was pretty thorough. I think we can cross Kevin off as a suspect. Other likely choices are Fabio’s wife Dulce, Fabio himself and, if the vic was hated so much, other residents of the lake.”

“I hope the people who lived around the lake then still do now,” said Booker.

Most of them did. Especially the major players, Peter and Liz Kozak and Manny Bell. Peter and Manny were now eighty and eighty-one and Liz edging toward that. Char managed to round them up at the Kozak’s large, two-story house overlooking Fisher Lake. The five of them seated themselves around the Kozak’s large kitchen table

“Are you aware,” said Char, “that the body of Wendy Miller has been removed from the property recently sold by Dulce Braga to Randell Kelly?”

“No shit,” said Manny. “So that’s where the old bitch ended up. Fitting she should be buried there, haha.” His grin was so wide it’s a wonder his face didn’t split in half.

“Manny!” admonished Liz. “You’re talking to the police! They’ll think you did it!”

“Maybe I did,” he continued to joke.

“Maybe you did?” said Booker, fully recovered from his root canal and looking his usual spiffy self.

“Nah,” said Manny, apparently not the least bit afraid of the cops. “The woman was a demon from hell, but I’m not the murdering type. Prison wouldn’t agree with me. I need my easy chair and my dog. I don’t mind that she’s dead though. How did the harpy kick it?”

“Well, according to the coroner’s report, someone strangled her,” said Char.

“And what?” said Manny. “Buried her on Fabio’s property?”

“Not exactly,” said Char. “She was found in the septic tank.”

“Holy shit,” said Manny.

Char and Booker exchanged looks and she started in on Peter. “And how did you feel about Wendy Miller, Mr. Kozak?”

He was perfectly calm. “I didn’t like the woman but would never wish her an early demise and certainly not in that horrible manner.”

“They tell me you were a plumbing contractor?”

“Yep,” said Peter.

“You would know all about getting one of those septic tank lids off.”

“Along with half or more of the county,” Peter retorted.

“My husband is a kind and wonderful person!” his wife snapped. “He would never murder someone, geesh! If there is anyone who knows how to control his temper, it would be Peter. I’m the one who gets all worked up about things, not him!”

“Maybe you didn’t like Wendy much, Mrs. Kozak?”

Liz rolled her eyes. “Seriously? A little woman in her seventies is going to take down a big fat female like Wendy Miller, dig down and open a septic tank and dump her three-ton dead body into it? Get real. And by the way, my husband has arthritis of the lower spine and does not risk injuring his back by lifting things! Surgery is the last thing he wants.”

“Do you know anyone who might want to have done Wendy Miller harm?” asked Booker.

Liz guffawed. “Apparently, a lot of people hated her. Not just here but we heard she'd been asked to leave a couple of other organizations. Kept stirring up trouble, making mountains out of molehills, causing endless meetings that went nowhere. I can’t imagine how her husband stood her.”

“Tell us about her dealings with Fabio Braga,” said Char.

Liz and Peter looked at each other. “We don’t really know,” said Peter.

“Oh, hell, we do,” said Manny. “She was always over there plotting whatever with him.”

“But maybe it was just about the septic situation,” said Peter. “She was all for protecting him from us supposed bigots.”

“I saw them once,” said Liz to Peter. “I told you about it but you said I was imagining things.”

“What do you mean, you saw them once?” said Booker.

“There’s a dirt road that cuts off from Rt. 82. The kind of road kids go out on at night to drink beer and what all. It’s a short cut from 82 to another road closer to our lake. If it’s dry out, sometimes I take it on my way home from town.”

“I told you not to,” said Peter firmly. “You could get stuck out there.”

Liz shrugged. “I know but what would life be without little risks? Anyway, her car was parked on it, off to the side, partly in the weeds and he was in it with her.”

Everyone leaned forward. “What were they doing?” said Char.

“Just sitting there, but then they would have heard and seen me coming and changed position if anything risqué were going on. The question is, what were they doing out there together?”

“What time of day was it?”

“Early afternoon on a weekday.”

“Didn’t Wendy work?”

“Yeah, some kind of administration job concerning placement of foster kids. But she worked a lot from home.”

Booker’s finger danced on his phone and brought up her old job and title. “Relatively good position,” he said.

“So,” said Char, “they had things to talk about in a secluded place. Couldn’t discuss whatever it was at their homes, apparently.”

“Yeah,” said Manny with a sly grin, “spouses might have been there.”


“I am so hungry today,” said Char. She and Booker were back at the station making calls and doing “paperwork,” though why they still called it that, she didn’t know. It was convenient to have an old boyfriend in the Edison, NJ police department who still felt guilty for dumping her. Milking this for all its worth, she could get him to find out info on Jersey citizens.

“We just ate a couple of hours ago,” Booker said. “Your metabolism must run a hundred miles an hour.”

“But then why am I not skinny?”

“You’re fine,” he said firmly.

“Let’s go get a bite and decide how we’re going to interview Dulce Braga.”

To do so, they would need to drive to New Jersey. According to LinkedIn, the woman worked at a travel agency in Jersey City. They checked the agency’s hours and Char said, “Road trip tomorrow?”

Meanwhile, Char received a call from the medical examiner with her report. "Definitely strangled," said Robin. "Can't get any DNA from what's left of the finger nails. Teeth show it is definitely Wendy Miller."

"Thanks," said Char, then replayed the info to Booker.

They left at eight AM and were in Jersey City by eleven. Locating the agency was another matter but eventually they found a parking place and walked in the door. Dulce Braga was at her desk with her name plate in front. They flashed their badges and she stood up.

She was no taller than five feet, if that. Probably ninety-five pounds. Not likely to have the strength to strangle a much larger woman, bind up her body and pitch her into a septic tank. Let alone get the lid off and on. Unless she had help.

“We need to know where Fabio is,” Char said.

“I told you, I don’t know. We’re divorced and not in communication.”

“What about the kids? Doesn’t he care about the kids?”

“I-I don’t know. He sort of just left them.”

“Really? Well, it says here on this paper I printed out that he makes child support payments to you from a bank in Florida. He must have employment down there to be so regular with those checks.”

Dulce was silent while several expressions passed over her face.

“Seems he’s living in Miami, driving a truck for the Serrano Brothers Market. They’re having him brought in for questioning as we speak.”

“We-we’re not together anymore, we’re divorced.”

“So why are you covering for him?”

Dulce paused, then said, “If he gets arrested or anything, I won’t get any child support. I need it to take care of the kids.”

“I understand,” said Char, “but hiding a suspect or covering for him is a crime in itself. Maybe you’d better start being honest.”

Dulce called another agent to come back to the office and cover her while she went with Char and Booker to the restaurant next door. After ordering a glass of iced tea, she started to cry.

“It’s been a nightmare. I love my kids but if I'd known how things were going to be, I sure wouldn’t have married Fabio.” She paused, then went on. “He has serious mental issues. He didn’t explain it all until after we were married. I knew he took meds but I thought it was for being bipolar which didn’t scare me but no, it wasn’t. He is paranoid schizophrenic. Hearing voices, hallucinations, the whole thing. He had them under control, but then the meds stopped working and they couldn’t seem to get it straightened out. He started to be hell to live with, started spending more and more time up at the lake working on that damn Airbnb and wouldn’t answer the phone. Then he expected me to handle the reservation stuff and all that on top of taking care of the kids and working at the agency.”

“Did he threaten you in any way when his meds weren’t working?” Booker asked.

“That wasn’t a real long period, only about six months once that started. He was up at the lake most of the time. One time I took the kids and went to my cousin’s house, but then we went back home. He never really hurt us.”

“When did the affair with Wendy Miller start?”

“About a year after we got the Airbnb up and running. People on the lake started complaining about everything. Some of them were mean. We didn’t mean to pollute the lake; we just didn’t know about that stuff. We didn’t know when the people sold us the place that the septic system was bad. We have city water here and just didn’t think about it.”

“And yet,” said Char, “You sold the place to Randall Kelly knowing the problem.”

She looked guilty. “Well…Fabio was going to have the septic tank turned into a holding tank but then everything happened and he…” She trailed off.

“He what?” said Char.

She sighed. “He did something to Wendy and he said was going far away and don’t come after him. He said he would send money and he did, after a while. It was really hard until he did but my cousins helped us”

“Back up,” said Booker. “What did he say he did to Wendy?”

She looked away. “I don’t really know. I didn’t want to know.”

“Come on, Dulce.”

She shook her head. “He didn’t like it when women got aggressive. She was pushy.”

“Did he confess to you?”

“No,” Dulce said. “He just said he had to get far away.”

“Dulce,” said Char.

“Okay, he could get nuts. I was just lucky to get a divorce. He gave me the lake house. It took six months ago to get that all straightened out so I could sell the horrible thing.”

“Did you own a house here in Jersey?”

“No, we lived…I still do…in an apartment.”

Booker said, “If you had to guess, what do you think he did to Wendy?”

She sighed deeply. “Well, since I heard she disappeared, I’m thinking what you’re thinking.”

“And why,” said Char, “didn’t the police during the original investigation think that too?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

After what felt like a never-ending ride home from New Jersey and Char had dropped Booker off at his apartment, she stayed up reading over the former investigation. Why had they dropped it without a more serious pursuit?

According to notes left by Branden Wolfe, the officer in charge at the time, it was due to pressure from a now deceased judge who'd property on the lake and then Officer Wolfe suddenly died. An aneurism or something. She called Booker to tell him.

“Why did the judge want the investigation stopped?” asked Booker hoarsely. She must have woken him up.

“Wolfe mentions that the judge’s own cottage’s septic system was the old kind, in other words a bad one, and that several other people near him had the same thing and he was sick of all the ruckus whipped up by Wendy and the others we interviewed. ‘I come to the lake for some damn peace,” he apparently told Wolfe’s higher ups. Some of them had lake cottages too, though not at Fisher Lake and they didn’t want things stirred up either. ‘We don’t have the manpower for this kind of thing,’ Wolfe’s boss told him. Probably Wolfe had planned to continue on his own time but then he died.”

“Sad story,” said Booker.

“It’s nice that I’m pretty much the boss now,” said Char.

Booker laughed.

The Miami police arrested Fabio a few days later and had him brought to Pennsylvania for arraignment. Apparently, he had confessed.

“I’m taking you out for a good dinner,” Char told Booker. “We’ll go to Cooper’s and get some decent seafood.”

Booker didn't decline.

Margaret Karmazin’s credits include stories published in literary and SF magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Mobius, Confrontation, Pennsylvania Review, The Speculative Edge, Aphelion and Another Realm. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review and Mobius were nominated for Pushcart awards. She has stories included in several anthologies, published a YA novel, REPLACING FIONA, a children’s book, FLICK-FLICK & DREAMER and a collection of short stories, RISK