Trimmigrant Song

Eric’s fingers were sticky; stained a sickly green to the second knuckles.

11 hours straight trimming, examining, and focusing on the leaves. The heady smell of the marijuana plants fading then returning with every snip.

There was a promise for the summer. A sure thing.

“We can pull in three to five grand easy,” Aaron said, “take the earnings and put something down on a house in Detroit. Property values are still trash out there and we can swoop in, build something up, and flip it once the market goes hot.”

Eric believed Aaron. He always believed Aaron even when he said he didn’t believe him.

“Who got us out of there?” Aaron asked. “Who got us the car and cash to make it out to the Emerald Triangle? It’s only a few weeks work.”

Better for it, Eric thought as he rubbed his calloused hands. The color was still there after multiple washes. The smell too. It journeyed with him out back to the car at night. Woke him up sometimes if he scratched his beard while sleeping.

Aaron wasn’t in the front seat sleeping. Too busy wandering around with those French kids.

• • •

The barista called them Trimmigrants.

“That’s a dumb name,” Aaron said.

“But it’s true,” a stranger pointed out, “we’re the same as any of the Mexicans picking strawberries.”

“That mean we getting Mexican wages?” Aaron asked sarcastically.

It made Eric feel uncomfortable. The work was hard, and they acted like it was glamorous. The promise of that cash was all they talked about; what they’d do with it, how many grams of this or tickets to this the money would buy. Dozens of disappointed parents whose presence was only the ping of non-stop mobile notifications—bank transfers and texts. Eric knew to take his breaks on Friday mornings—parent paydays—for fear of losing his temper.

“You can’t go losing that temper again,” Aaron warned him, “Only three more weeks and we’re gold.” He laughed looking at his hands. “Shit man,” he said, “we literally got green thumbs.”

• • •

Harold, the owner, was a slight man. Always wore sunglasses. Harrumphed into and out of the trimming room on good days. On bad days he screamed blue murder at the women that didn’t respond to his awkward advances.

Not many of the women lasted. Only Aaron’s friends were left on the last day—pay day.

But there was no pay. There was no Harry. There was nothing.

The French girls cursed and smoked. The greenhouse was locked and emptied. A mess of tire and boot tracks covered the dirt in patterns—it had rained the night before. They took all the product and ghosted.

“I don’t think this was Harry’s land,” Aaron said.

“You said this was a sure thing.” Eric almost slipped on a wet patch of dirt.

“We’ll find him,” Aaron said, “We’ll get our money. You think I’ll let that motherfucker do us dirty like that?” He made a show of it. Paced and hollered at the empty greenhouse. The girls laughed and applauded his anger.

The cops were beginning to usher the trimmigrants out of town. Picking season was done and nobody wanted to look at the help while celebrating their profits. Eric volunteered to pack up the car. Aaron ran off with his girls for one more night. It was better that way.

Eric packed the trunk. Moved a few boxes and found a pair of boots—mud-caked, Aaron’s size. There’d only been one night of rain and Aaron always wore Vans. Leaning in, Eric noticed the trunk stank like his hands.

The realization burned Eric up something fierce. The cool off wasn’t happening anytime soon. Eric finished packing up, but before that pulled the tire iron from the trunk’s spare tire kit and slipped it under the passenger side seat. Waited hours for Aaron to come back, but Aaron did—nice and drunk.

“We’ll have our cash by tomorrow.” Aaron leaned back into his seat. Closed his eyes. “Believe me, I got this.” He was snoring in seconds.

Eric dug his heels back and felt the weight of the tire iron against the soles of his shoes. He stared at the road and tried to believe in Aaron more than the promise beneath his seat.


5 Questions with
E. A. Aymar

This week, it’s Ed Aymar in the seat for our 5 questions. Ed is the author of “The Unrepentant,” a book that Publisher’s Weekly described as a “gut-wretching crime thriller.” Ed is also a hilarious guy in person. How does a hilarious guy plunge into those deep, dark places? Let’s find out!

Q. In the intro to this book, you mention interviewing a number of women about their traumatic experiences in the world of prostitution. I’m sure that was difficult and complicated. How did you do it, and did the experience differ from what you imagined it would be heading in?

First off, thanks Nick! I’m a fan of your work and everyone should read your fantastic novellas. And if you or anyone else edits this out, I’ll just post it in the comments. DON’T TEST ME.

As for your question…you know, I’d never done that much research for my writing. Most of the research I’d conducted was location-based; I write about real places, and I always want to make sure my representation is accurate. I don’t feel comfortable writing about a location unless I’ve set foot there and stared at the buildings or streets or fields with my own eyes.

So this was the first time I did research outside of my own experiences, and it was unnerving. Of course I read, and I read as many books as I could until I began to see the correlation between violence and prostitution, which is the line The Unrepentant explores.

But it was talking to people that was unnerving. I don’t have proper journalism training, and I worried about forgetting to ask something, and then having to call the person back, and then forgetting something else, and basically annoying someone to the point of exasperation. But the people I spoke with – women involved in anti-sex trafficking movements, or active sex workers – were incredibly gracious and giving with their time. We had conversations rather than interviews.

Q. Whenever anyone writes about the kinds of things your characters go through, there’s always the risk it’ll be seen as exploitive. You obviously had that concern when writing this. How did you make sure you didn’t go over the line (i.e., checked yourself before you wrecked yourself)?

Nowadays there’s a lot of deserved feistiness in regards to voice – how you assume the voice of a character, why you’re doing it, and what you’re saying – and I was conscious of that when writing The Unrepentant, particularly because one of the co-protagonists is a young woman. I’m in the fortunate position of having a number of peer readers who are talented women writers, a female agent, and the editor for the book was a woman. They made sure I didn’t fuck up her voice or experiences too dramatically, or guy her up too much.

I wasn’t too worried about sensationalizing the violence or depicting sexual violence graphically. My view on violence is generally that it’s callous, and stupid, and cruel. So there wasn’t too much of a chance of me John Woo’ing a fight scene.

I worry about the celebration of violence in our media and entertainment, and I’d hope that this book doesn’t give readers anything other than a general sense of unease in regards to it. I’m not opposed to violence as entertainment, but that wasn’t the right or responsible approach for this particular book.

Q. What made you decide to tackle this novel now? Why this plot?

That sort of ties into the response to your last question. The people who read my other books tended to gravitate toward my female characters, and I wanted a female as a protagonist. And the more you read about violence – particularly from the perspective I chose – the more you come across violence done to women. Charlotte emerged from those two elements, and the rest of the plot came with her. She started it, the story and the other characters followed in her wake.

But I didn’t set out to write a book about sex trafficking and, although that’s obviously a huge element of the novel and a large focus of my research, I shy away from terming it a “sex trafficking novel.” It’s a study of violence, who does it, and how it affects the abuser and the abused.

Visit EAymar.com

Q. You’re well-known as a managing editor (of The Thrill Begins), a columnist (of the Washington Independent Review of Books), and an anthology editor (of the awesome “The Night of the Flood”). How do you think all that editor experience affects how you write novels? Does it impact how you approach your own writing?  

Hey, thanks for not putting well-known in quotation marks! That’s nice of you.

The Thrill Begins gives me a better understanding of publishing than I’d have otherwise. The regular contributors write for a mix of big five and specialty publishers, and some have experimented in self-publishing. We’re friends, and share with each other what our experiences are like. And the features we do often provide an honest look at the variety of experiences writers have in this business, both good and bad. That’s been extremely helpful in regards to navigating my own career.

When I started writing, I didn’t expect to write anything other than novels; largely because I didn’t think I could write anything other than fiction. And then, after my first novel, was published, I realized how shortsighted I’d been. Writing for the Washington Independent of Books has given me the chance to push myself as a writer, and that’s a wonderful thing. I love being able to be part of the publication, and I love getting to flex a muscle I wouldn’t otherwise.

The cool thing about the anthology is how much it made me sharpen my own game. I’ve reviewed short stories before, and it was so cool to get a batch of stories that were all good. Every story was the realization that I was working with a sharp, hungry, talented writer, and that was such a cool experience. And, as an editor, you see how good writers approach their work in different stages, and that’s insight you wouldn’t get any other way.

Q. How’s the crime fiction scene in MD/VA/DC? Is it becoming more robust?

 

I think it’s the best in the country.

I know those are fightin’ words, but I stand by them. This area is producing some of the best noir, cozies, procedural, political, historical, and cop fiction out there. And given the wonderful diversity in the area, we also have the benefit of writing from a variety of perspectives and experiences.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that good crime fiction isn’t being written in the Midwest, California, New York, Florida, the south…not at all. But I’d absolutely put the DC/MD/VA triangle against any of those regions.

Overall, it’s a wonderful time to be writing crime fiction – competitive, but not cruel. We all support each other, and even though we’re going through some growing pains as we necessarily change and understand and adapt, we’re all here and hungry and working to improve. I love that, and I love being part of it, and I love that the triangle reflects the best of that experience. So suck it, Ohio.

Be sure to leave a comment below to be eligible to win a digital copy of THE UNREPENTANT by E. A. Aymar. Winner will be selected Monday April 29th.


The Rule of Three

Agnes Rodrigues turned her back on the tenth hole. It deserved the snub, and she didn’t care if if her putt kept rolling all the way to Kona.

“Nice shot,” said Coutinho.

Where had he come from?

“Rule of three,” said Agnes. “The triple bogey is one. You’re two. What’s three?”

“Shad Heaukulani,” said the detective. “He’s out today.”

“And?”

“His cellie says he’s been blaming you for five years.”

“You mean Grimes?”

“I forgot—he’s a client too. I thought your track record was better than that.”

Coutinho never forgot anything, and her track record was fine when clients gave her something to work with. He just enjoyed messing with her.

“You might want to watch your back,” he said.

“Comes with the territory.”

Coutinho’s territory was the rainy Hilo side of the Big Island. He stood in the relentless sun of the Kohala side as if he expected his hair to ignite. Had he really come to protect a criminal defense attorney?

“I don’t need the aggravation,” he replied to her unspoken question. “Since when do you play golf?”

“I’m taking it up again. Haven’t played in ten years.”

“That’s why your game is off. Like your phone.”

He wasn’t the only one who knew her weekend routine. She came to the expensive Kohala resorts to pick up a man from the mainland. She spent Saturday night with him, sent him back to his life on Sunday morning, and then turned her phone on to find out which of her clients would need her on Monday morning.

This Saturday she had turned the phone off even earlier. The etiquette of golf demanded silence, and expeditious play. The three men in her foursome were doing a poor job of looking patient.

“Try it with your feet a little closer together,” said Coutinho.

• • •

Agnes made her entrance. Male and female heads all around the hotel bar swiveled. She had never taken a woman up on the challenge, but maybe someday she would.

One of the men in the room outweighed any two of the others. In this hotel, native Hawaiian men loomed like strangers in their own land. Agnes filed the insight away and steered straight toward the man at his table in the center of the room. She took the seat across from him.

“Shadrach,” she said. “You’re out.”

She knew he hated his Biblical name, but she wanted to seize the momentum.

“As of today,” he said.

“I’m told you’re unhappy with me. Next time you discipline one of your people, maybe you shouldn’t do it with half the island watching.”

“I had five years to figure stuff like that out. That’s what I came to tell you.”

She gaped at him.

“My cousin got me a job here. Take care, Ms. Rodrigues.”

He heaved his bulk up from the chair and left. After a moment she decided she might as well go back to plan A.

Assuming she could close her flapping jaw.

Agnes looked around and decided to cut the usual process short. She selected a presentable man at the bar and crossed the room to him. Eyes followed her sleek dark progress.

“Buy me a drink, and we’ll see what happens.”

• • •

The warm, moist air of Hilo welcomed Agnes home. She parked in her reserved space and popped the hatchback. As she reached for her golf bag, a faint scuffing on the blacktop sent a charge up and down her spine.

She slid her putter from the bag and spun to the right. The club connected with the bony knob of the man’s right elbow. Shad would have shrugged, but Grimes screamed, and a nasty serrated knife dropped from his hand. He sank to his knees and cradled his elbow. Agnes stood over him.

“Now you’re making me call the cops, and I hate that. I’d tell Shad, but he doesn’t need trouble.”

Grimes kept sniveling.

“You understand I can’t represent you on this?”

She had never stored Coutinho’s number. If she got hit by a car, or stabbed, she wanted clean underwear and no cops in her contacts.

She gave him the details.

“Nice,” he said. “Feet together?” “Thanks for the tip.”


Windows to the Soul

9:20

Jackie watched the clock on the car stereo. Hands tight on the wheel. It was cold and there was a ragged stratum of ice curling up the windshield. She sat in a fog of her own breath.

Engine running, heater off.

She wanted to stay alert.

“Come on, asshole,” she whispered. “Don’t take all day.”

She watched the door and she watched the clock. The parking lot was empty. She felt as if she were the only person in the world.

ATM machines blinking.

Deposit slips mouldering in the ornamental rosemary.

She leaned across and pushed open the passenger door.

9:21

The front doors opened and James ran down the handicap ramp with a reusable Trader Joe’s bag in one hand and a silver revolver in the other. The bag was burdened underneath. Handles taut. His mask was crooked and he tripped coming off the ramp but he didn’t fall, just tumbled haphazardly over the asphalt and through the open car door.

Jackie didn’t wait for him to get settled.

She hit the gas and white smoke spit from the rear tires.

At the intersection there was a white Toyota making a lazy turn onto Graham Hill Road. She launched through and cut around the car. The Toyota hit the brakes and the driver looked around bewildered.

Jackie never took her foot off the floor.

9:22

James reached in the bag and pulled out a fistfull of cash.

“What took so long?” she said.

“I hit all the registers, baby. Every one.”

“Three?”

“Yep.”

“Should be twelve grand in there.”

“Looks like it,” said James. He was digging in the bag like it was Halloween. “How long will that last?”

“In Baja? Depends on how much junk you smoke.”

“I just wanna chill out, Jackie. Weed and Corona.”

“Heard that before. Anything go wrong in there?”

James tilted his head back and forth as if deciding what she’d consider wrong. “It was chill. Except for the last part.”

“Tell me.”

9:23

James stammered, trying to put it a certain way.

“Just tell me,” said Jackie.

“You remember that girl Becka from high school?”

“Becka Simms?”

“No, the other Becka.”

“Becka big tits?”

James put his hands in the air, wavering. “I guess.”

“Don’t tell me you never called her that,” said Jackie. They were a mile up Highway 9 and the roads were clear in both directions. Just another mile would do it.

“I think she recognized me.”

“You’re fucking kidding. What’d she say?”

“She looked into my eyes, Jackie. It was the last register by the door. I wasn’t going to hit her up but the first two were so easy. She was looking right through me.”

“Then what?”

“She said my name.”

“She said James?”

“No. She said my full name. James Ritchie.”

Jackie cut onto Summit Road.

9:26

They parked on the bluff. The sun had crested the trees and the frost on the windshield was subtracting to the cowl. Jackie slipped one hand on James’s knee and the other on the grip of the revolver in the center console.

“What are you doing, baby?” said James.

“Should have been more careful, babe.”

James laughed, then his eyes widened.

Jackie thumbed the hammer back.

“Becky’s cool, baby. She won’t say nothing.”

Jackie looked him over. He’d be handsome if he wasn’t such an idiot. It was too bad he’d never outgrow it. She pulled the trigger and the passenger window shattered. The bullet went through his neck and cut his spine. He made a quick nod and fell forward onto the dashboard like a felled tree. A formless jet pumping over his collarbone.

She took the money and put the car in neutral. When she stepped out, the car rolled silently down the hill toward the sheer drop at the end of the bluff.

“Told you to wear your fucking sunglasses,” she said.

9:27

Jackie walked to the road.

The switch car sat beneath an old-growth redwood tree.

She spun the keychain on her finger and lifted the money bag as if judging its weight. Ten hours to the border.


Kaboom

Yeah, it was me. And so what? He deserved it. Three Christmases, RJ ran off with our gifts. Missy’s doll house, Patty’s Legos. This time, it was the baby’s stuff. Year-old Lulu. His own kid. With the same cold, almost black eyes. Like bullet holes on those shows where the bad guys always win.

I knew he would do it. That one present, that’s the one I rigged. The prettiest package, wrapped in silver and red foil, with the little stuffed kitten sticking out of the bow.

That’s the only thing I hated, about doing it. The kitten got blown up, too.

Never mind why I did it. Why’d he keep stealing our presents? Sold them, to get high. And Mom always let him. With that hopeless look she got, like when my brother Markie took another dump in his pants. And he was no baby. We were all fucked up, all five of us.

Me, I was supposed to be dumb. But at the same time, smarter than some grown-ups. How else could I build a bomb? A special kid in a special school instead of a real sixth grade class. Nobody was allowed to say why I was weird. But toy companies made special dolls for kids like me. Just for girls, I guess. The one girl in my class kept spinning around, but could recite all the presidents, backwards.

An old mousetrap, I found, in the basement. The storage area. Our building is super-old, with lots of fun shit, all over. Wouldn’t have been fun for the poor mouse, though. Glad I found the trap, first. And more fun shit, on the other end.

That weird guy upstairs, I think they were his. The shotgun shells.

All those shows, on like the true crime channels. You learn a lot. They’re so stupid to give directions. Not everybody who watches wants to blow something up. But there’s always one kid . . .

Who’s sick of the shit . . . Like his mom’s eyes all swollen, more often than not . . . Who busts out crying, when she’s nuking mac n’cheese, or wiping ass.

When the pretty foil comes off, and box opens, the bar on the trap hits the primer . . . 00 buckshot. Nine per shell . . .

A nice, big mess. . . .

You’d think Mom would be glad. But when the cops came—the lady cop looking like that weird redhead comic—Mom screamed, and screamed. Chunks of RJ mixed with chunks of the dealer, the cops said, so you couldn’t tell who’d worn the Giants cap. You couldn’t tell who was black, and who was white.

The kitchen stunk. Markie had shit his pants again. For once, the cops came with good news. But nobody but me was happy. Not even Lulu. And it was mostly for her, I did it. She looked at me all mean.

With Mom wailing in the background, and the other kids holding each other, that lady cop kept her eye on me.

The only one smiling.

I hooked my pinky around Lulu’s fingers. In her baby face, RJ’s eyes told the cops that yes, I was special: More grown-up than kid.


Rebound

When I was in the 6th grade there was one night I just couldn’t sleep. I MTV until it was time to go to school. I laid on the couch with my back turned to the TV, hoping the music would put me to sleep. That night they must have played this song by Jewel – you remember Jewel? – at least four times.

“Dreams last for so long, even after you’re gone,” she sang.

When I was eleven years old, hearing that song, I knew that I was too young to fully understand the pain this beautiful woman was crying about. Someday, I thought, I would come back to the song after a heartbreak of my own and understand exactly what Jewel was saying.

So, fast-forward a few decades, and Tina leaves me. An inert piece of shit, she called me. I had imagined my life with her and having her walk out on me was forcing me to re-imagine my existence. In a way, it was a death.

And Spotify, knowing the sad sack that I had recently become, actually recommended me a grouping of playlists they collectively referred to as “sad songs.” One of those playlists was called 90’s acoustic. And there, in the middle of the playlist was “You were meant for me.”

Finally, I knew what she meant. I knew it too well.

A week after Tina left my apartment proclaiming that she would never speak to me again, I sent her a text that said, “I was meant for you… and you were meant for me.” She never responded. Maybe she just didn’t know the song.

I had an uncle who lived his whole life alone. His beard always had food in it. Probably bugs also. He smelled like cigarettes and unwashed balls. I remember overhearing my mother talking about him once. “The man would be different if he had someone to share his life with,” she said. “They would minimize some of his, you know, less desirable eccentricities. But, well, he’s too far gone for a woman to be interested in him now.”

Looking in the mirror and seeing a dead skin flake hanging from my own patchy beard, I thought, how long would it be before I was too far gone? Was I too far gone already?

After two weeks of no messages from Tina and sleepless nights full of self-loathing, I had come to look at every woman I saw as a potential life partner. Would she save me from myself? Would she be my Jewel?

And one day I went to the Quick Check down the road to buy some toilet paper. In the parking lot, sitting with the door open to an old jalopy, was a woman. With one leg out of the car and her head resting against the steering, she had her eyes closed tight and was muttering something to herself. I thought maybe she was in pain.

“Are you okay?” I said.

She turned to me and opened beautiful blue eyes. “Just having a rough day is all. Thanks for asking.”

I nodded awkwardly and went into the store. I was walking down one of the back aisles looking at the magazine covers when I heard the same woman’s voice again. “Take all the money from the register and put it in the bag or I will pull each one of your teeth out with pliers, motherfucker.”

I turned down the aisle and saw her, the women from the parking lot. She had a pair of pliers in her hand and she was pointing them at the cashier, a kid of about sixteen. After the kid put a few handfuls of cash into a canvas Trader Joe’s bag, the woman ran out of the store.

Smitten, I followed her. There she was in the parking lot, cursing at her car. It wouldn’t start.

I came over and knocked gently on the hood. “Want a ride?”


Day Interrupted

I never really liked this collection job. Most of the people I collect from I know from the neighborhood. It’s South Philly. I grew up with their families. Mostly what I get is chump change to Bocco. But they’re life changing savings to the families. I go easy when I can. I even shell out of my own pocket once in a while, just so some poor jamoke doesn’t lose the use of his hand, so he can keep working. But today was more fucked up than usual.

I made my regular pick up at Fanelle’s garage. They never miss a payment. On my way down Passyunk Ave. I saw the Venutti girl, Fiona. It looked to me like she was hustling. Short leather skirt, tight red sweater, high heels, middle of the day … I’ve known her Pop for ages. I swung over to the curb, slid my passenger side window down and called out to her, “Hey, Fiona, what the hell are you doing out here?”

She came over to the window, “Who the fuck are you … oh, Sal, hey … you should get out of here …”

“What are you talking about …”

That’s when I saw a tattooed hand reach in and unlock the door. I grabbed the wrist but the door opened.

Fiona started yelling, “Donny, don’t, not this guy!”

With his free hand he shoved her away, yelling for her to shut up.

It got tough, leaning over, holding on to him. I’m thinking ‘what do I do now… shit, drive.’ So, I pulled away just quick enough to make this asshole jog, then I sped up until he lost his footing, then drove a little further. My hand was aching. My forearm burning, so I let go. I pulled the car over quick, hopped out with the billy club I keep by my seat and raced around the back of the car. He was just starting to get up so I kicked him hard in the gut. I had the club raised when I heard Fiona’s heels clacking up behind me.

“Sal, don’t! He didn’t know. He’s from Fishtown. He doesn’t know who you are.”

He moved to get up. I stomped him on the ass, “Stay down asshole! What’s going on, Fiona? This is a situation now, you know.”

“He’s my friend. We need a few bucks. He said this would work.”

“This ain’t no way. And in our neighborhood for christ’s sake. Plus, he put his hands on you! What do you think your father would do? Your brothers? Holy shit!”

“Look, Sal, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. Just let us go.”

“Not that easy. You know …” he moved again, “I said stay down, fucking idiot …” this time I whipped the billy club across the back of his thigh. He howled. “Shut up dipshit. Fiona, you know who I work for, right?”

“Yeah. Bennie the Bulldog.”

“Right. So, you try to rob me, you try to rob Mr. Bocco. You know what that means.”

“I swear, Sal, it was a mistake. We never would’ve …”

“Don’t matter. I can’t let this stand.” I hoisted Donny up. Shoved him against the car, “We’ll never see each other after today, you understand?”

“Fuck you, old man, I ain’t afraid of you!”

I threw a right hook, caught him in the temple. The kid was on the ground again, out cold. “Fiona, you’re going to call this in as a hit and run, got it?”

“Sal, no …”

I arranged the kid so his legs were under the car, in front of the rear tires.

“Please, Sal!”

“He’s getting off easy. You too. If he moves it’ll be worse for you, both, got it?”

“Sal!”

“He’s a loser, Fiona, you can do better.” I turned from her, got back in the driver’s seat, started the car. The kid started to wail “Noooo, please!”

I hit the gas, the car lurched. I heard him shrieking as I pulled away.

‘Should have stayed in Fishtown, asshole. You made me late for my next pick up.’


Practically Family

“Things are happening,” VH said, “and I need to know who Ican trust. Uncle Harley is high on you. Says you’re practically family.”

“I’m tempted, VH, but it’s a pretty far step for me.”

“Is it?  Why were you dealing before?”

“I was short of money and it was easy.  Until it wasn’t.”

“You said your supplier didn’t even know you’d been busted.  What kind of trust is that?”

Clay thought this over.

“Plus,” Clay said, “who’s going to believe an Emory law student is taking orders from a hog farmer in Dennon? Isn’t that why you want me?  Because nobody would expect it?”

“If your enemy expects you to go north,” VH said, “go south.”

“Holy shit.  Did you just quote Sun-Tzu?”

“My granddaddy used to say that.  Look over here.”

Clay stared at the brown crusted concrete tank, the heavy sludge that was somewhere between liquid and solid, and wondered how deep it was. All kinds of shit jokes came to mind, but a tightness in his stomach told him not to speak.

Lee and Elson dropped the tailgate and pulled out a canvas bundle that grunted when it hit the ground. Clay’s neck hair stood up.  VH nodded and they pulled the canvas to the edge of the manure pit.

“I’ll probably keep this pit, after the new one’s finished.  Sentimental reasons,” VH said.  He stood at the edge as Lee and Elson untied the rope and pulled the canvas open.  Inside was a man, his head dripping with sweat and eyes rolling from VH to the cousins.  Duct tape covered his mouth.  Clay’s mouth was suddenly dry.

“You know what I want, don’t you?” VH asked.  He took a step back and the cousins picked the man up and lowered him until the top of his head touched the sludge.  His moans turned to muffled screams, then to choking.  VH nodded and they dropped him back on the ground.  Lee pulled off the duct tape and the man took in huge gulps of air, choking and coughing.  VH knelt beside him and waited till the coughing subsided.

“You know the gasses in there, they can be lethal,” VH said.

“VH I swear¾“ the man said in a squeaky voice.

“You got your methane and ammonia, but there’s others.  Hydrogen sulfide’s the deadliest.  You stir that sludge and it really pours out of there.  Two breaths of that high concentration can kill you.”  VH looked at Clay.  “That’s why the new one is vented so well.”

Clay’s heart was hammering.  He fought to keep his breathing even and face blank.  VH’s slight grin told him he wasn’t succeeding.  VH looked back at the man in canvas.

“I need a location and a name.”  He looked at Clay.  “We thought this guy was long gone with our shipment, but Uncle Harley remembered he had a sister in Savannah.  Harley and his details.”  He looked back at the man.  “Who was your contact?”

“VH please¾“

“Lee, grab that rake and stir that slurry some.”

The rake was a pitchfork; its tines curved ninety degrees.  He plopped it into the sludge and stirred.  The fresh smell drove Clay back.

“Smell that?” VH asked.  “That’s that gas releasing.”  He nodded and Elson pulled him toward the pit.

“No!” the man screamed.  “Skull Creek!  Just south of the mouth!  That big stretch of beach!”

Elson looked at VH.  “That’s a good place, cuz.”

“Sure is.  Who set you up?”

“Jaspers!  That DEA guy.  He always knows where the feds will be.”

“See Clay?” VH said.  “Feds got no trust, either.”  He pointed with his chin and Elson picked the man up by the feet and shoved him into the sludge head first.  He didn’t even have time to scream.  His legs kicked, but only for a few seconds.  Elson pushed him in to the knees, then Lee pushed on his feet with the manure fork till the thick brown sludge closed over his soles.

“He’s got plenty of company down there,” VH said. “None of them were family, either.”

Elson clapped Clay on the back and grinned.

“Ready to talk numbers?” VH asked.


An Italian Affair

He saw Marlene from the bottom of the stairs before she saw him.A brilliant ray of sunlight burst through the overcast sky, glowing around her like a halo. In this light, she resembled a saint, or perhaps a Madonna. He laughed at the irony.

His pulse quickened—she always had this effect on him. He took a deep breath, expanding his lungs until he could inhale no more, and then slowly, ever so slowly, he exhaled, all the while watching her. God, she was beautiful.

She descended the stone stairs to the piazza, still not seeing him. He wondered whether he should call out to her. Over a year had passed since they had parted, and the memory of their last conversation still pained him. His face grew warm as he recalled her words: “When you leave, there must be no further contact between us. It’s for the best.”

Why was she still in Rome?

He moved behind a stone column at the base of the steps to watch her walk across the piazza, and as she came closer he shrank into the shadows to remain hidden from her. He longed to reach out, to seize her hand, but he did not move. Better to let her pass without knowing he was back.

A flock of pigeons scattered into the air above his head, and she turned at the commotion. Her gaze moved to where he stood, and he knew she saw him standing in the shadows. Her mouth opened slightly and she raised her right arm as if to wave, but immediately lowered it.

Two officers of the polizia di stato strolled toward him. He pretended to study the map he’d been carrying, hoping they would pass without noticing him. They came closer but did not stop.

Once the police moved past him, he scanned the piazza and found Marlene again. She was walking away without appearing to rush. For a second, he felt rooted to the rough stones of the piazza. He snapped out of his stupor and ran after her, weaving his way through tourists taking selfies at the fountain. When he caught up to her, he grabbed her arm and spun her around to face him.

 Her face flushed and she yanked free from his grasp. “Were you following me? Why are you here?”

“I’ve been back for almost a month now. I thought you’d be long gone.”

“Yeah, well, I’m still here, thanks to you. I’ve been scraping by. I didn’t have many options after you took off with the stash. Lucky the polizia didn’t connect me to the job.” Her voice was bitter.

He studied her face for any sign she might be lying. “But I left your share with Brian before I left. Didn’t he—”

“Brian? He left Rome right after you did, said you’d taken all the money and he was going after you. Wait—are you telling me that little bastard has my money?”

He nodded.

Her brow furrowed as she digested this information. Then she grabbed his wrist and pulled him through the crowd to a deserted alley. She abruptly stopped and faced him, her nostrils flared, her lips pulled back, her teeth bared like a wolf about to attack. She tightened her grip until he winced. Letting go of his wrist, she relaxed her jaw, and an unsettling calmness came over her.

 “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do—but first you’re going to help me find him.” She smiled, and he remembered what happened to the last guy who’d crossed her. The police never did find all the pieces. God help Brian.


The Buttered Pig

I was in Virginia. Or West Virginia. I don’t remember what the last sign read before I turned into the rest stop.

A shifty local in a brown pleather jacket quietly offered me a Walkman as I passed by the trucker hats and gum.

“Seven dollars unopened. Okay, five.”

I couldn’t see straight, and wanted to sit down even though I’d been sitting in the car for

thirteen hours, having started in Cape Canaveral. The sticky long distance driving glaze enveloped me.

I watched the Challenger explode into pieces yesterday. America was in mourning.

“Fuck off,” was his final offer.

He slithered away and disappeared past the claw machine that caged dead-eyed stuffed animals.

A tin sounding voice came from a waitress that buzzed by me. “Welcome to The Pig, seat yourself honey.”

I should have kept driving, eaten on the go, it was a long way to New York. Greasy footprint impressions on the floor sent shivers through me. Johnny Paycheck crackled from the radio in the kitchen, and every now and again, a skinny black man in the order window peeked over his bejeweled sunglasses to survey the restaurant. Just to be sure everything was copacetic.

She arrived and sat directly behind me. I heard coffee slurps in-between her whimpers, and turned around to ask if she needed help. A blonde hair bun poked above the booth. She said no, but her crying escalated.

I said, “You sure?” and slid out of the booth.

Holy shit, her eyes. Her mouth. Bloody lip and nose, nobody has helped her yet. Where was I again?

She started, as if to soften my interrogation, “It’s no big deal, but I sure would appreciate a ride home. My house isn’t far. He won’t be home, he’s on his way to Maryland to drop off pallets of butcher paper. He’ll be back tomorrow.”

He must be her old man who put the pounding on her. I agreed to give her a ride. While she tended to her wounds in the bathroom, I tried, but failed, to finish the shitty meatloaf I had ordered.

Other than offering up her name, Roxanne, she didn’t have much to say, and I couldn’t blame her. I wondered if I should have called the cops, or taken her to a hotel, a shelter, anywhere to hide her out for a while.

Instead, I pulled up to her house. She was real sorry my meal was interrupted and wanted to show her appreciation by making me a sandwich for the road. Initially I declined, but at her insistence, I agreed to take the sandwich. It seemed as though she wanted company, didn’t want to be alone just yet.

She opened the back door to the house, and there he was. The hood who was hawking the Walkman stood in the middle of the kitchen, and greeted me with a sharp, “What’s up New York?”

He put a survival knife to my throat as Roxanne dug my wallet out of my back pocket.

He counted $73 in cash, stuffed it into his sweatpants and said, “Seven dimes, not bad New York. Now get the fuck out of here and don’t stop until you get home. And don’t bother calling the cops, there aren’t any around here.”

Roxanne smiled like a sated crocodile, but winced when it reached her puffy left eye.

I could have called the cops. Or maybe not, according to Mr. Walkman. But they let me go unharmed, and I wanted out of that town immediately, so I reasoned with myself that it was a learning experience.

I was somewhere in Pennsylvania when I noticed that she had lifted my watch.

I’ll be sure to avoid that route for a future rocket launch. If there is a next time. Jesus, they all died up there.