Sofia Rojas inhaled the steam rising from the ancient cast iron pot. Like all of the Rojas women, at fifteen, Sofia possessed the exquisite sense of smell that told her what spices to add and when the food was done. She dropped the last of the beef into the pot, closed her eyes and breathed in the steamy scent of the Menudo.

“What does my daughter’s exquisite sense of smell tell her is needed in the soup?”

Carleda Rojas stepped to the stove, leaned over the pot and breathed deeply. She turned to Sofia in surprise.

“Mija this is beef, not tripe. How did you pay for this?”

“It was going to be a surprise Mommy. You’re home early. Is everything okay?”

“The water pump at the diner died again. But, don’t change the subject. How did you afford the beef?”

“Your beloved son Jorge called this morning. He got paid early and told me to cash the remittance check that came today. The Covid overtime at the hospital gives him fifty extra dollars a week and he wanted me to hide that. He said to plan to leave San Salvador for Los Angeles soon. He sent Oregano, my college application and things for my school projects. I bought groceries and then hid the rest of the money to keep it safe from…”

“Keep what safe Sofia?”

Carlos Geismar, El Hombre de Remesas, the Remittance Man, was standing in the kitchen door. Running the largest extortion operation in San Salvador he knew the remittance payment schedules of the city’s poor, unprotected citizens. Since their father’s death and Jorge’s move to California the Rojas women were in that group.

“Senora Cruz at the grocery tells me you bought some beef this morning. And I thought you might be doing favors to get extra money without letting me help you. But then I learned your remittance check came early. You weren’t going to keep it from me, huh? But I will still do you a favor if you do one for me.”

Geismar was fifty, balding, with a belly hanging over the belt of his white linen pants, the jacket stained with sweat. He looked Sofia up and down as Carleda stepped in front of her daughter. It was then that he saw the soup pot and smelled the aroma.

“Menudo, with beef.”

He smiled, grabbed a large bowl and filled it with soup and most of the beef and sat down. “A beer Sofia! And then the money.”

Sofia set the beer bottle on the table and went to her room bringing back all of the money except the extra fifty.

Geismar smiled smugly, finished the Menudo, guzzled the beer, belched loudly and looked at his watch.

“I am late for another remittance visit but I’ll be back.”

As he left Sofia picked up his empty bowl and froze as her exquisite sense of smell took over.

“Did he use those packets Mommy?”

“He poured half in before I saw him. What spice beside oregano did Jorge send? This smells like burnt almonds.”

“It is ground Millipedes They produce Hydrogen Cyanide. For my science project I wanted to test how lethal it was. What happened to the poison sticker that was on the packet?”

Before Carleda answered Sofia ran to the window as she heard yelling. Geismar stumbled and fell into the street a block away. Dr. Flores ran out of his office to help but finally stood and pronounced El Hombre Remesas dead from a heart attack.

“I should tell the police what happened. I’m responsible.”

Carleda turned and poured the leftover powder down the drain. She took the poison sticker hidden in her hand and placed it in her pocket. Then she scoured Geismar’s bowl until her exquisite sense of smell was satisfied. She joined her daughter at the window and watched the police and undertaker place Geismar on a stretcher and saw the smiles on the faces of their neighbors as they drove him away.

“No Sofia, you’re not responsible. His greed was. Now he will report to a higher power, and will have to remit what he owes”.


Thomas thought about the hospital. Thought about those who had fired him, thought about the car that had done what Thomas couldn’t do, and he wanted revenge. Most nights, before Tracey left for good, Thomas would be sweat-soaked and pacing; his thoughts a type of werewolf, which had cursed him and his loved ones. He had scrawled his plans using the kids’ art supplies in the unfinished basement. At the center of that madness was Charles Bell.

On one such night, when the world had seemed all atilt, Tracey finally called him on his bullshit. “What about your family, Thomas? Who’s going to look after us if you’re in jail?” She had asked, her brown eyes sharper and deeper than they had ever been.

He looked away as though her eyes, somehow, reflected his madness back at him, and he wanted to, but he couldn’t, admit he didn’t know, so he cleaned up the basement and thought he’d cleaned out the hell hound scrambling through his mind.

Charles Bell will pay for this had been scrawled in slightly smudged crayon on a tattered scrap of butcher paper; it was the last bit of his “plan,” and Thomas kept that piece in his wallet. But, now, Charles was dead. Thomas didn’t believe it. One moment he was awake and Charles was alive, and then he was asleep and Charles was alive, and then he woke up and Charles was no longer there. How could he be just gone, Thomas thought. Tracey had left, too. Packed her things, took his boys, and moved across town. She hadn’t left a note, but would text ever so often as mandated by court.

Charles had been Thomas’s supervisor; he was the man who stood there while the security goons walked Thomas out. Thomas remembered Charles’s face. It was slick, rubbery looking, pale. There was no bone in it. Thomas had wanted to stare into that putty face as he dug his tactical penknife into Charles’s chest until the gunmetal casing ran sticky red, but now, because of a slippery road and a missing guard rail, even that had been taken from him.

He’d gone out to that stretch of 311; tucked that butcher paper into the folds of a plastic carnation someone had tied to the crucifix jammed crooked into the red clay. Glass sprinkled like glitter crunched beneath his boots, but was slowly being absorbed by the earth and asphalt. The wind picked up, and the tattered paper waved to him like an old friend departing for a long journey or, perhaps, a final taunt from Charles.

Of course, Charles Bell and the hospital were not on his mind when Thomas drove out to Tracey’s house off Hamilton Street. He could feel that old werewolf itch in his gut, burning as he drove on, the .45 Taurus in the seat next to him.

It’s important the kids have a father in their lives, she had texted him.

Sitting at a flashing red light, his mind wandered. The light pulsated and bathed his truck in its harsh beam like a one-eyed demon winking at him from the void; daring him to make a deal. He thought of their bodies in the bed of his truck. How the spark in their eyes had faded slower than what he’d thought it would, and how it should have been Charles’s body instead. He grabbed the pack of smokes he kept in the glove box, shook one out, and mashed the cigarette lighter. His hands were sweaty, greasy against the leather wheel.  A train horn sounded off in the distance like the wail of a dying woman. Thomas grabbed the lighter, lit his cigarette, and drove on down the road. 

Yes Man

All would be forgiven, the Don promised, if Marcus killed a man. The Don talked of vaporous concepts, like the eternal legacy which extends beyond death, how every choice is an immortal echo, a permanent imprint on the consciousness of humanity. A ripple without end.

Though the Don spoke in cosmic riddles, Marcus understood their meaning. Succeed in the task and Marcus would be redeemed. Fail and he would be spoken of in fearful whispers and tones of disdain. A nameless object lesson, left to rot in the ocean’s depths.

The target was elderly and harmless and had recently bought a liquor store near the pier where Marcus had grown up. The Don insisted he die in his place of business. An attempt to make some sort of point, no doubt.

So Marcus set out to slaughter someone he did not yet know and would mourn forever. Memories flashed neon as he drove through the darkness. Memories of what had brought him to this moment. Kneecaps left intact. Debts gone uncollected. All in the name of mercy which was not Marcus’ to give. The debtors’ gasps of relief and gushing thanks reverberated in his mind. They had begged for more time; Marcus had said yes to them all.

He rolled down the window and listened to the distant lapping of waves, breathed in the salt-tainted air, and recalled a time when, as a child, he had strived to be good. But in all those hopeful years he had only managed one selfless act.


Adrian, brash and determined to swim farther out than anyone else. Then flailing, thrashing, sinking. But Marcus had braved the raging tide, and Adrian had lived. One bright deed amidst years of depravity.

Marcus smiled at the memory. Then the liquor store came into view. He was wrenched back into the present.

The place was nearly deserted. Marcus cocked back the hammer of his revolver. Covered his face and went inside. There, behind the counter, the man he must murder, standing blissfully bored. Breathing in and out in a slow way, as if he would go on breathing forever. Then the old man saw the gun pointed at him. He opened his mouth to speak but all that came out was a strained squeal.

Marcus raised the revolver. The gun gyrated in his trembling hands. He couldn’t risk missing; he put the barrel right against the target’s sweat-slicked forehead and closed his eyes. Pulled the trigger once, twice.

Then he left, quickly, before the body even hit the ground.


Marcus vomited over the side of the pier and watched the sunrise. It seemed washed out, somehow. Pale.

He turned to leave and saw a man wearing a green tracksuit jogging toward him, and the man was Adrian.

Adrian recognized Marcus first—he claimed he’d recognize Marcus anywhere. He laughed and rambled about how he had promised never to forget Marcus, how he often told his kids the about the boy who had saved his life. Then he spoke of the present; his oldest had just graduated with high honors, and Adrian’s long absent father had returned to make amends. Connections reforged, a family reborn—a beautiful thing that would not have happened if Marcus had not dragged Adrian out of the water all those years ago.

Adrian’s phone rang. He answered it. Listened for a long time, then hung up. His face drained of color, drained of hope.

“You drive here?” Adrian rasped.


“I need a ride. Need one right now.”


Adrian spoke in restrained sobs.

“Liquor store on Ninth. My old man. He’s been shot.”

A violent refusal clawed its way up Marcus’ throat. The Don, he almost blurted out. The Don wouldn’t like that. But then Adrian buried his head in his hands; he did not cry but made horrible choking sounds. Drowning noises. Marcus watched the boy he had saved, the man he had destroyed. How in God’s name could he ever say no?

Federal Offense

Miranda Lake listened to the chatter in the break room. It was late and the 3rd shift was gathered in the correctional officer’s lounge shooting pool and drinking coffee. The conversation turned to the death of a high-profile inmate housed at their sister prison, MCC New York.

At MCC Chicago, guards wondered; could you murder someone locked in segregation at a federal prison?

“It can’t be done.” Gaura set down his coffee and lifted his cue.

Lake reached for a cue, joining the game. “I say it can, and it did.”

“What makes you think so?” Patterson scoffed. “What makes you think you know how custody works? You’ve been working in Receiving and Discharge a long time now.”

She tapped a ball into the corner pocket. The handcuffs, hanging from her waist, banged the table. “I started in custody. I’ve been in these walls too long.  I know what can and can’t be done. It can.”

“How?”  Gaura probed.

Lake reflected, “The midnight crew is typically a newbie crew. They don’t know any better, so they do what the Lieutenant tells them. He sends a few people out on perimeter watch, or out to get burgers. It keeps them busy for the right amount of time to do it.”

“Do what?” Everyone’s head turned to Officer Jones, who strolled in, gripping an energy drink.

“Kill him.” Lake replied, leaning in. “Strangle him and make it look like a suicide.” She persisted, “Custody can be bought.  I’ve seen it with guards here. A Hack one day, an inmate the next. It’s a horrible job and they don’t pay you enough.” She lifted her chin, “The pictures were released. Three broken bones in the neck are unheard of with suicide. They must have used wire.”

“Cameras?” Gaura challenged.

“Really?” She shrugged. “Things go wrong with cameras all the time. I just want them to be caught,” She said fiercely. “I want that entire bribery scheme exposed. There had to be a lot of money involved for a locked-door murder, and those women deserve justice.”

“Who’s in on it?” Patterson grilled.

Her eyes narrowed. “Your Control person—because they’re gonna run that secure elevator carrying the Lieutenant and his Assistant directly to SEG and hold the elevator there. The Security Specialist, because they are making sure the camera footage doesn’t exist.” She paused. “Takes two gorillas and two minutes. They do it and leave him for someone else to find. Everybody gets paid. The Warden gets a nice job transfer to the Regional Office as punishment, and a few heads roll. The officers that actually went out for burgers can’t say they left the building, so they say they were sleeping on the job. Those poor dopes get cut from the roster.”

“They did forge the log book.” Patterson’s eyes widened.

“Well, I mean…”

“What do you mean, Lake?” Warden King’s shadow filled the doorway forcing the group to their feet. Coffee cups banged into trash cans.

Lake turned to face him and nodded, “Warden.”

King looked over the group. “I’m hearing you tell the others your speculation of how an inmate was murdered up in New York.” He strolled toward the vending machine.

“Yes sir—well I heard the others talking and I was just offering my opinion.” Lake gripped the cue, feeling the Warden’s long-standing contempt for her. Moving her to R&D after she wrote the memo exposing Captain Carter, but, unable to link King to the crime.

“I believe, Lake, you should keep these thoughts to yourself. I won’t have you badmouthing the fine officers up there in New York.” He turned to the group. “If you are going to be loyal to your position, then I suggest you keep speculation to yourself.  I won’t have my officers joining the bandwagon of suspicion.”

The officers nodded, murmuring, “Yes, Sir.”

He turned to Lake, “Why don’t you take a stroll down to the basement with me while the rest of your coworkers get to their posts?”

Officers scurried.

Lake turned away, sliding her handcuffs into her front pocket and the key under her tongue; then slowly walked out of the room to find the Warden and his assistant waiting for her.

The Smartest Guy in the Room

“Nobody has to know,” said Diana.

“I’ll know,” he said.

Diana studied him on his bar stool. She seldom got to work for men like this Jason, with his strong forearms, tousled dark hair and jawline so sharp it could injure a hooker who forgot her professional detachment.

Maybe it was just as well he wasn’t the client.

“Six months ago you’d have had my full attention,” he said. “But now I have something too good to risk.”

“I don’t have a lot of experience with getting turned down. Live and learn, I guess.”

She slid off her stool and headed for the exit. In the parking lot across the street from the hotel she spotted the silver Lexus she wanted. The fifty-ish blonde woman behind the wheel wasn’t the average client either. Diana climbed into the passenger seat and plucked the button microphone from the back of her lapel. The client accepted it and handed her an envelope.

“You heard?” Diana asked.

“I heard.”

“Tell your daughter to take good care of him.”

“Thank you.”

The woman didn’t sound convinced, but Diana had earned her payday. She climbed out of the car and watched the woman drive off.

Diana went to her Taurus five spaces away, but she didn’t open the door. She had paid to park for the whole afternoon, while she did her job and wrecked a young woman’s wedding plans.

So whose plans were canceled now?

She crossed the street and went back into the hotel. At the entrance to the bar area she stopped. The man of her dreams was closing the deal with a sleek brunette. The woman had “flight attendant on a layover” practically stamped on her forehead. Diana backed out of sight behind a column, as the couple walked by and brushed shoulders in anticipation.

Diana took a seat at the bar with a good view. She watched as the elevator went straight to the ninth floor and then came back empty. Two hours and two beers later the car went up to nine again and returned to the lobby. The brunette exited, this time wearing her red flight attendant ensemble and towing a wheeled suitcase. Jason followed. They exchanged a casual kiss, and the woman left the hotel.

Diana was already moving. He wasn’t going anywhere without answering some questions. When she blocked his path, he didn’t seem surprised to see her.

“You made me,” she said. “I need to know how.”


Because I didn’t make you, and I hate that.

“I just do,” she said.

“You can buy me a drink.”

He had nerve, but she already knew that. She turned and went back into the bar. The stools they had occupied earlier were free.

“It wasn’t anything you did,” he said over his boutique bourbon. “It was the timing. I knew she’d try something as soon as we announced our engagement. This trip gave her the chance.”

“Your mother-in-law to be?”

“She didn’t trust me from the start.”

He gave Diana a charming, heartless smile.

“Can’t say I blame her. I’m impressed, though. She picked somebody I could really go for.”

“Business before pleasure. Her daughter being the business.”

“We think alike.”

Not exactly. Diana understood getting the money, but she preferred to earn it. That raised the question. Was she still on the client’s clock?

“Look at him,” said a familiar voice. “Thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room.”

Diana swiveled and confronted the client and the brunette in red. She winced. What was wrong with her today, that amateurs could sneak up on her like that?

“I guess it never occurred to you I could hire two just as easily as one. I already talked to my daughter. You’re history.”

The client stared at Jason until he got the message. He made a production of looking nonchalant, but he went. The client laid a hand on Diana’s shoulder.

“My daughter fell for his line too.”

“I’m usually the smartest guy in the room. Not today.”

“Nobody has to know.”


My dad lay dying, intermittently mumbling short bursts of information. Missing my mother. Lots about Jonathan, my older brother. The favorite with a tech start-up. His worry over the youngest, Claire. She’d been spoiled into addiction and until recently, was still getting payments from the Bank of Dad. I waited for my name to rally forth, but it never came. Like always. Growing up, I thought I was the family dog.  There, under the table, listening, waiting for someone to say my name. Maybe I should’ve spoken up.

I absorbed Dad’s worry as my siblings texted me for updates. Should I come now? Do you know how long?

Jonathan searched for cheap flights. Got to find something affordable, sis.

Claire marshaled social media sympathy. Friends, this is SO hard.

I placed my phone near Dad’s ear so he could ease into the next plane listening to music. Suddenly, he clutched my hand.

“Did we do the right thing?” he asked.

“Dad, what?”

“You, you more than anyone, you will understand, won’t you? You’ll help them now.”

“What do you mean?”

“The signed Stephen King. On the shelf. Find it. No one else knows.”

He settled back, slowly releasing his grip on my hand. He took his last breath as the sun rose.

Two weeks later, we gathered at Dad’s house. It should have been earlier, but Jonathan pushed the funeral back three days. It will be more convenient for me, Sis.

He’d found those cheap flights.

And Claire? At least 75 people were Facebook weeping over her loss.

I steeled myself for the day, hiding in the kitchen, binge-eating chips.

“You’re going to get fat. And the toilet roll in the bathroom is all wrong.” I looked up to see Claire.

“How’s that?” I asked.

“You’ve got it flipped the wrong way.”

“Did you fix it?”

“Well, no. Not my house.”


I carried a plate of sandwiches to the dining room.

“Everyone settle in,” Jonathan said. In all the rush, I’d forgotten Dad’s last words.

The signed Stephen King. Find it.

I slipped away and retrieved the book from the bookcase. Inside, there was an envelope from the state lottery commission. The shocking revelation might have caused the average person to show her hand. But not the loyal dog. My parents had won a thirty-five-million-dollar lottery. There were bank deposit slips and several transactions. From what I could tell, they’d given almost all of the money away.


The papers said it was a private account, accessible only through a specific attorney. All the details were there.

I stepped toward the dining room. There were cracks in the ceiling. Paneled walls from a bygone era. You’d never know they had great wealth. Dad said I would understand. I would help them.

No one else knows.

“Jonathan, you don’t get an equal share,” Claire spat. “You got an advance on your inheritance to buy your house.”

“That’s private!” Jonathan snapped.

Claire shrugged. “I guess not.”

“It says here divide equally among my children,” Jonathan waved a piece of paper. “Besides, you went through a lot of dough for bail money and then rehab. Twice.”

That had to sting.

            “What do you think, Sis?” Claire asked.

“About what?” I asked.

“The distribution. Dad can’t have meant that the remainder of his estate is equal. You were with him. Did he clarify anything?”

They stared at me. The money debate might go on all night with drinking and shouting and me, alone in the kitchen washing dishes, putting away food. Taking care of everyone else’s mess.  

I’d inherited a family secret. I could change their lives in an instant.

Or not.

“Well, did he say anything because my livelihood is on the line,” Jonathan shouted.

“I need to know how much now!” Like always, Claire.

There are a lot of ways to die, I thought.

I’d experienced the death of a thousand slights.

But to deny someone? That’s another way to kill. Slowly.

“He said he wanted me to have the Stephen King.” I clapped the book shut.

The oldest got all the praise.

The youngest got all the attention.

But middle sister gets all the money.

In the Frame

I loitered on the edge of the crackling pavement, watching cruel smoke ribbons emanate from the ash of Cocody Marché.  The ghosts of Abidjanais merchants’ middle-class dreams keened above.  Harvey, a 280-pound bead of sweat, muttered over his shoulder while mopping his grotesque brow: “The police have officially declared it an electrical fire.”  A beat.  “You’ve passed your test, Abby.”  A fat envelope, a thoughtful pause.  “If you’re looking for something longer-term, you’re hired.”

No time for Aristotelian debate on the ethics of Harvey’s client, the French conglomerate opening a new centre commercial downtown and seeking to dominate the local consumption scene.

Or on my own mores, come to that.

“I’m in.” 

“Instructions for your next assignment.”  Another francophone capital sous-saharien.  “Read and return them.”  I complied.  Harvey ignited them, tossed the stub into the ashes.

A straightforward job.  A savvy, well-oiled tycoon (petro-state, government monopoly, connections, wife + girlfriend, etc.) – who cracked the stereotype by eschewing the traditional Parisian flat and embracing his penchant for contemporary Africanart.  Binoculars – Harvey’s lone advance contribution – confirmed a Diarrassouba painting in the girlfriend’s salon

So, I contrived to meet her. 

Acting the part of an insipid, insouciant American at a garish club did not unduly tax my faculties.  I “accidentally” bumped the young hoyden’s drink while attempting (failing) to dance to coupé-décalé, and promptly offered an apology beverage.  Adequate French and a strategically-employed wallet procured my invitation to her next fête. 


I wore wide-legged pants to the party (unattractive, pragmatic; attractive shoulder-baring top necessary) and brought a suitably expensive bottle for the hostess.  The house thrummed eclectically; the living room stereo blasted Algerian rai, the hired band played Congolese ndombolo.  The party attendees were well above my cut – young professionals in everything from finance to film, the occasional NGO runner.  I spent ten delightful minutes discussing the enduring relevance of Calixthe Beyala’s work with a female engineer, and another ten on possible contenders for this year’s Mo Ibrahim prize with a gentleman schoolteacher.  Then I headed to the restroom to put my head between my knees and reconsider my life choices.

But Harvey had held my return ticket against completion of the job.  The attendees had largely moved outside; dinner was served.  In seconds I lifted the painting from the wall and darted into the bedroom with it.  Extracting it from its frame – slightly warped from the humidity – proved tedious, but I managed.  I rolled it up with the care I’d have extended to a magic carpet, and tucked it into the cardboard tube just extracted from my left pant leg.  I was just about to return it when she entered –

– deconstructed my colonialist conneries with panache –

– and asked what I thought we could get for it.

I whistled.

« Lui – » She shrugged elegantly toward her lover.  « Il ne me plait plus. » 

Half a commission beats a late-night arrest, I reasoned.  Aloud, I said, fervently, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Two in the Streets

Two a.m., and last call was fifteen minutes ago. The slender guy at the bar paid with cash, peeling twenties off a thick wad that he stuffed back into the inner pocket of his cashmere coat. He looked around the bar and shook his head as if to clear it, and then he wobbled toward the door.

The wind grabbed the door out of his hand and he staggered going out into the January chill. The Rolex Oyster on his wrist caught the light as he went out and turned north up Second Ave. Wrong way, mister. Nothing up there except dark streets as empty as the eyes on a skull, all the way up to St. Vincent’s Hospital. I counted slowly to ten, then shrugged into my navy pea coat and left my last glass half-drunk on the table, weighing down a ten for the waitress.

By the time I hit the street, he was a block ahead of me, weaving all over the sidewalk, a drunk on his way home. He paused to lean against an old Honda Civic that was parallel-parked at the curb, and then he shook himself, raised his head, and walked on. I stayed in the shadows and moved along behind him. Watching. Waiting.

The two kids that came out of the alley were lean and hungry-looking. Greasy T-shirts, jack boots, dirty jeans If I’d been close enough to smell them, I knew they’d reek of weed or patchouli. The taller one had a hunting knife in his hand, and the polished steel blade caught the little ambient light there was and reflected it dully.

I skulked along under the awnings of the building, speeding up a little but not enough to make myself breathe hard in the cold night air. No reason to give myself away. Not yet.

I was close enough now that I could hear their conversation.

“–like a donation, you know,” the shorter one said and grinned at his buddy. “A little something to keep us poor orphans warm on a cold night like this.”

The man in the cashmere coat wasn’t having it.

“Leave me alone,” he said. “I’m just looking for a good time.”

“You found one,” the wolf with the knife growled. I was close enough now that I could see the pitted acne scars on his face. He held the blade low, cutting edge up, like he knew how to use it. He jabbed it toward the man, his face breaking into leering grin.

“Come on,” the shorter one said. “Let’s just get the money.”

“We take the money, and maybe take a piece of him, too. He could ID us.”

“He’s drunk, he ain’t gonna ID shit.” He turned to the wobbly man in cashmere, who seemed to pull himself up to his full height. “Come on, man. Give us the fuckin’ money.”

“I’m not drunk,” the drunk said. His voice sounded full of righteous indignation, and I grinned a little. I’d been there myself. I flipped the tail of my pea coat up and put my right hand in my back pocket.

The one with the knife made a come on, come on gesture with the blade, and I saw the drunk’s hands go up, saw his hand dip into the coat pocket.

Good, I thought. Give them what they want. Give me time.

But the gun that came out of the jacket wasn’t what either of those kids wanted. The first shot rolled like hard thunder along the buildings, and I could barely hear the clatter of the knife as it hit the concrete sidewalk. The next shot followed less than a second later, and then both bodies were sprawled on the concrete. The slender man in the cashmere coat stood there for a moment, the gun seemingly forgotten in his hand. Then he put it away and walked on up the street.

He wasn’t weaving anymore.

I still had my hand in my hip pocket, my fingers curled around the cold metal of my Birmingham PD detective’s shield. I left it in my pocket and came out of the shadows to stare down at the men lying dead on the street.

Ground Beef

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” I said.  A few clouds grazed lazily across a field of stars.  They lumbered onto moon, and the world went dark.

Tanner kept on shoveling.

“Ole died,” I said.  “And so Lena goes to the newspaper man to write an obituary.  ‘Just put, “Ole died,”’ Lena says.  ‘That’s it?’ The man asks.  ‘You don’t want to say anything more?  If you’re worried about money, the first five words are free.’  So Lena thinks and says, ‘Okay, put “Ole died.  Boat for sale.’”

The only sound was the thud of the shovel.  Back in the old days, when they would have gotten $20 each to dig a grave, that joke would have killed Tanner.  I threw a couple more loads of dirt, climbed out, and sat down next to the hole with the last two beers from the truck.

Tanner paused and stepped, heel to toe, around the edge.  He’d grown early – one of the reasons Sports Illustrated attributed to his success – his foot being just over one-foot long by the time we were fourteen.  He measured twice, tossed his shovel out, and pulled himself up beside me.

“I can’t believe I killed him,” Tanner said, rubbing his forehead.  The moon peeked through just enough to shine a small sliver on his mud-encrusted World Series ring.

“It was an accident.”  I finished off my beer and pulled out a tin of chew, for old times’ sake.  “Could have happened to anyone.”

“It’d just been so long, you know.  Like, what – 10 years?  I was gonna go straight to my Aunt’s, but when I drove in and saw Humphry Hill…I…I just wanted to take a look.”

I spit, and nodded.  “Big Mac’s been sticking close to that hill at night, on account of losing his leg to a coyote a few years back.”

“He didn’t even move.  Just looked at me with his one good eye.”  Tanner swallowed hard.

“He was living on borrowed time anyways.  I mean, he was old when we were kids.  My dad has a photo with him on his first day of Kindergarten.”

“They wanted me to take a picture with him tomorrow.  For the billboard, you know.”  He jerked his head towards the highway.  The shell of the sign was currently covered with a sheet – lumpy from the cutout of the letters reading “Birthplace of Tanner Gibbons” – in preparation for tomorrow’s ceremony.

I spit again, stood, and brushed off my jeans.  “Well, let’s get at it.  We need to get your vehicle cleaned up, too.  Can’t go to your party with guts in your grill or blood in your bed.”

“Thanks again for the help, man.  It’s been too long.”

I shook his hand.  “What are friends for.”

We got beneath Big Mac.  Fortunately, the old Holstein wasn’t more than skin and bones, and it wasn’t much of an effort to hoist him into the hole.  Tomorrow morning I’d come by with the cultivator – I needed to do this section in the next day or so anyways – and soon it’d look like all the rest of my family’s fields.

As we dumped the dirt back into the hole, Tanner asked, “Should we say a few words?”

“Sure, do you know any prayers for a cow?”

He gave a smile, like he used to do right before we’d find some trouble when we were kids.  “What did St. Peter say when Big Mac got to the pearly gates?

“The steaks have never been higher.”

Philippine Farewell

The Cessna Citation banked hard right for a few paralyzing seconds before leveling, and what caught Max’s attention was the glimmering Pacific appearing through the window, its dazzling vastness extending as far as the horizon allowed. Briefly, the majestic view made him forget how much he hated to fly, or, more specifically, how much he loathed air travel in general. He hated the spatial wastefulness of airports, and he despised mouth-breathing passengers, violent turbulence and intrusive security checks. He harbored a hatred for all aspects of air travel as much as he hated blowhards who blathered on about politics or religion whenever conversation arose, which is to say he hated everyone and everything with unmitigated passion, though he kept those fervent emotions repressed—it was never wise to reveal too much from within the inner sanctum.

But when the orders came down from Rodel Ocampo to be at the private hangar inside Davao International before sunrise, Max complied, as did a few others: Carlos, Ernesto and Darrin. The hoodlums met on the tarmac, boarded the plane, and took off as daylight was breaking.

Ocampo, better known as The Saint of Death or Rodel the Devil, depending on which Filipino slum one inhabited, was a cliché middleman for an arm of the Mexican Sinaloa cartel that had been running ungodly amounts of crystal methamphetamine through the Philippines over the previous decade. He was a slovenly sort who was promoted to his position because of an influential uncle with a rubber stamp mentality. Max had little respect for the man other than the fact that Rodel happened to pay his subordinates in cash, and he paid rather well.

For Max, he was fine with steady income that was under the table. He’d encountered a tiny bit of trouble back in the States, trouble that came with a warrant and a prison sentence between 15 and 20. Max was an assumed name he’d been living under for half a year, and he was perfectly content to spend the rest of his days on the run as a free man with his new name, living in his modest apartment near the coast where the bikini-clad migrated. The pretty young things liked Americans, though they liked cash even more.

The flight had been steady for nearly half an hour when Rodel rose from his seat near the cockpit. He steadied himself on headrests as he lumbered toward his men at the rear of the plane, where they sat as far away from each other as possible. He walked a few feet forward before stopping midway. “Boys, everyone aboard gets their hands dirty on this job.”

Rodel had a thing about not getting his own hands dirty, which was understandable, but his repeated proclamations were like swallowing castor oil. They never went down easy and tended to stir nausea. He pointed at Darrin and Carlos. “Garbage to unload in the rear. Takes more than one to carry a load, so you two are up first. Let’s make this quick.”

Darrin stood and Carlos followed suit. Rodel turned to Ernesto and pointed at the hatch at the front of the plane. “Open the door and watch that first step.”

Max’s breakfast of eggs and grapefruit began to protest. He could only think of what could go wrong once the hatch was open, having seen too many movies where the passengers were sucked out by the vacuum. He made sure his seatbelt was buckled and drawn tight, looking up just as Darrin and Carlos were lugging a plastic garbage bag that was duct taped and weighted. It had the contours of a human body. Ernesto opened the hatch. It got windy and loud. The two men tossed the bag and went to retrieve another.

Rodel yelled at Max. “Get your ass up here, Maxie.”

Reluctantly, Max unbuckled and followed orders, his knees quaking as he straightened, but he only managed a few steps before Darrin and Carlos grabbed him underneath both arms. They dragged him to the open hatch, his screams dying against the rushing wind.

Rodel leaned in close. “Time to grow some wings.”

With a shove, Max quickly discovered something much worse than flying.

One Bad Spin

For the rest of my life, I’ll never be anything but The One Who Left Mom Alone in the Car That Night. It’s like landing on the “bankrupt” wedge on Wheel of Fortune—no matter how well you’ve played the game, one bad spin undoes it all. I’ll never be Selfless Angie Who Took Mom in When No One Else Could Be Bothered or Sweet, Patient Angie Who Put Up with Mom’s Bullshit While Everyone Else Lived Their Best Lives—just Stupid, Careless Angie Who Left Mom Alone in the Car in the Wrong Neighborhood at 2 A.M.

In my defense—how’s that for the title of my memoir? In My Defense: The Angie La Rosa Story—I thought the 2 a.m. thing would work in my favor. Who the hell goes to QuikMart at two o’clock in the morning? And anyway, what could happen in three minutes?

I know it was three minutes because that’s the deal I made with myself: three minutes, not a second longer. Long enough to stretch my legs and buy one of those enormous 89¢ fountain pops you can only get at places like this. We’d been on the road since 7 a.m. because Mom couldn’t get it through her skull that her yearly trips to Boca weren’t a good idea anymore. There’d be consequences for drinking a quart-and-a-half of Diet Coke, but I’d been running a cost-benefit analysis since Kankakee and I decided I’d take the hit.

I was at the counter when I heard the first gunshot. At first, I didn’t panic. One gunshot is a question mark. But then the gun went off again, and that’s when I knew it was bad. If one shot is a question mark, a second one is a period. Sorry, Angie, you’re fucked. Full stop.

Through the door, stomach in my throat, mouth full of battery acid, and the first thing I saw was my mother. Why couldn’t you have just stayed in the car like I told you, Mom? The second thing was the man who’d just ruined my life. The last thing was the blood. Three things, in that order: Mom, man, blood.

“Jesus, Mom,” I heard someone say. Oh, right—me. “What the fuck did you do?”

Mom held the gun at her side as casually as she’d carried her orthopedic shoes on the beach last week. She used one foot to turn the body over so I could see what was left of the face. “Frank Marino’s oldest,” she said. “He recognized me, kitten. The little bastard went for his phone as soon as he saw me.”

Sure enough, there was Frank Junior’s iPhone on the pavement, a few inches from his stupid, dead fingers. Mom had broken every mob rule in the book when she dropped the dime on the Marino family six years ago, but things had worked out like she wanted: Frank Senior was in prison, the Marino family had imploded in his absence—backbiting shits, every one of them—my family had slid into the void they’d left in the local hierarchy of killers and thieves, and Mom had finally gotten the retirement she wanted. (It turns out the feds are disturbingly good at helping old ladies who turn state’s evidence fake their deaths.) Everything was fine until I had to stop in the old neighborhood for my Diet Coke fix at the exact moment Frank Junior decided what would really complete him was a gas-station burrito. Fuck me.

I couldn’t see the clerk through the window, but I had no doubt she’d already called the cops. For a few seconds I fantasized about driving away and leaving my mother in the parking lot for the police to deal with, because fuck them too, but then Mom was snapping her fingers at me and I slipped back into my default persona. Angie Who’s Forty-Two Years Old and Still Does Whatever the Fuck Her Mother Tells Her to Do, at your service. Mom shooed me into the driver’s seat, and we were back on the road before the first blush of blue light tinted my rearview mirror. 

Jesus, Mom. Why couldn’t you have just stayed in the car?

The Naughty List

The Christmas tree stood proud, red and silver and plastic. It smelled real. The collector’s wife must have lit a pine-scented candle before leaving for church.

The presents, more than I’d ever seen, were wrapped and stacked beneath simulated evergreen needles. Gold and blue paper popped under lights and tinsel—the place looked like a Hallmark movie set.

“We need to get in and out, fast,” I said. “If the collector returns and we’re here, we’re fucked.”

Smitty didn’t answer. I glanced right. He stared at the tree, oblivious, munching Santa’s cookies.

“Cut it out,” I said. “Those are for Saint Nick.”

Smitty laughed. Rotten yellow teeth flashed between crack lips. The ugly hole poked out of splotchy skin. “I’m on the naughty list.”

I frowned. “Put the treats back.”

Smitty grinned. “Who gives a shit?”

“I do.”


My mind flashed to the orphanage and the pain and the cold and everyone calling me “Cracker Bitch” and the wrapped GI Joe and the joy—overwhelming happiness. Somehow, exactly what I’d asked for, magically appeared under my bed. I never figured out who put it there, or how they knew. The attached card said: “Merry Christmas -Big S”.

That’s when I became a true believer. 

“Santa’s real,” I said.

Smitty’s ugly hole broke ear to ear. “The fuck your say?”

“A thing happened… At the group home when I was a kid.”

“Yeah, I heard those priests are friendly.”

“Not that, asshole. A gift from nowhere.” I frowned. “Shit, I don’t know.”

“Wait… you think Santa is real?” Smitty laughed. “You fucking idiot.”

I slapped his dirty mouth. “Don’t disrespect Santa.”

Smitty held his jaw and whimpered like a bitch. 

I pointed to the wall-hung paintings. “Mass is over in five minutes. Let’s get these out.”

We loaded Big Tony’s requested art in the back of the stolen van. I drove away. 

I was halfway to Hoboken. Sinatra crooned in the background. I felt good. Big Tony paid well. I’d be able to get my boy the PlayStation. 

I looked right, checking the mirror. In the corner of my eye I saw Smitty. He cradled a small, blue and gold wrapped, present.

My stomach soured. “The fuck is that?”

Smitty shrugged. “We jacked ten original oil paintings.” He raised the gift. “Who gives a shit about this?”

“The kid, and Santa.”

Smitty laughed. 

I stopped the van. “Get the fuck out, leave the present.”

His bloodshot eyes went wide. “What?”

I pulled my Glock and pointed the 9mm at his head. “Drop the present. Walk to Tony’s. Do it now. Disobey and I’m offing you, just like Lucky Larry. Fuck around and find out.”

Smitty did as he was told.

I was disappointed. I wanted a reason.

I banged a U-turn and returned to the collector’s place. I sprinted inside, dropped the thing, and got out. As I drove away, a silver Bentley rolled past. I’d beat the collector home by minutes.

I drove to Tony’s, delivered the stuff, and got paid. Smitty sat there, wet from melted snow, looking sour.

He smirked. “The true believer.” He sucked a menthol. “Ever since we got out of the pen, you’ve been a pussy.”

I tasted menthol. “Fuck you. Santa’s real.”

Smitty chuckled. Tony shrugged. I left.

• • •

I woke at sunrise on December 25th. There was a text from Fat Tony on my phone.

“Turn on the news.”

I flipped the switch. The anchor spoke.

“Tragedy in Hell’s Kitchen. A local man, Gerald Smith, died last night. A dump truck, managed by Kringle Enterprises, lost control on ice. The truck skidded to a stop, but the load of coal broke loose, crushing Mr. Smith. He was 42 years old.”

I texted Tony. “Tragic”. The fat man didn’t answer.

I reached under my bed, looking for my jeans. I felt something and pulled it out.

It was a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23 year, with a red bow, and a little card, which I opened.

“Merry Christmas,

Presents for the good. Coal for the naughty. Don’t fuck around.
Stay Frosty,

—Big S”

I opened the bottle and took a long slug. The good burn hit. I felt merry.