Hearts

“I understand, officer. I don’t want to be standing out here either when it’s colder than a well-digger’s ass, especially when the missus and I should be chowing down on some gnocchis at Sabatino’s instead. But, you ask me, the real problem isn’t the submachine gun I’m holding right now.

“You guess right. The real problem is Big Dick.

“You know we haven’t had the most neighborly relationship, this is some next-level shit.

“My missus and his did their best to calm down all this calamity over the years, and to say thanks, his missus left some Wockenfuss on our front door. Of course, chocolate attracts ants, especially seeing as how it’s been so warm. So when Big Dick asks me later if we liked them, I joked the ants seemed to.

“Course, this was just fooling. Obviously, I didn’t mean anything by it and, obviously, any normal person would know I was joking.

“Obviously, Big Dick wasn’t attuned to humor.

“He comes over a couple days later, bearing another box of Wockenfuss. Says sorry about the infestation, says this is the best Valentine’s gift since the one Al Capone gave Bugs Moran’s people. I didn’t know what that meant either, but he fancied himself some kind of gangster. Anyway, later that night, when my missus bit into a cherry cordial, what streamed out wasn’t syrup but goddamned 10W-30.

“She says to me, Hon, just let it go. But I can’t just let that sum-bitch feed my wife motor oil.

“So I run down to Loved Ones, down Fell’s Point, pick up some…ornamentations. See, he’d been complaining about the pigeons perched on his porch crapping all over his stoop. I figured me and my bottle of Liquid Nails could help.

“Yessir, he came home to a rainbow of dongs. Every size, shape, color. Veiny and not. I made sure his front stoop represented every dong.

“Well, that set Big Dick right off. We exchanged some parries. Ever original, he painted a dong on my driver’s side, so I put slices of bologna in the shape of a heart on his hood. Bologna takes off the paint? He hid a can of anchovies under my seat, so I bought ten bags of glitter and dumped them all over his stoops, giving him no way in but through those glitter piles. Childish, maybe. Hard as hell to clean up? You bet your ass. He’ll end up going to work with glitter in his clothes.

“Then he took things too far. Missus and I were headed out to Bengies for a movie when he yells from a window, Hey, lovebirds, Cupid hit you? At which point the motherfucker shoots an arrow at us. Damn thing bounced off my car then ricocheted through our front window, taking the damn tail off the damn cat.

“That put a cap on it. His old lady threatened to cut his dick off if he pulled any more attempted-manslaughter shenanigans. We let things cool, stayed our separate ways.

“Until the chickadee Little Dick had eyes for saw fit to take up with my boy at the school dance. To be fair, he might’ve been courting her just to get at Little Dick, but reasons don’t excuse results.

“Because my missus comes home this afternoon to find a porch full of rose petals. Her heart went pitter-patter as she followed the trail of petals and what she thought was raspberry purée inside the house, up the stairs, and into our bedroom, where she reckoned she’d find deliciousness—or, second choice, me—laid out on the bed. But what she really found, officer, was a heart. A real heart.

“No sir, I do not know where it came from, nor do I want to know how he procured it.

“But a couple days before, I looked up what he meant by Al Capone and Valentine’s, so I gave him that gift, let him feel like a gangster. And I shot his house full of bullets, even made it heart-shaped. But I did make sure not to hit anyone, and I’m real sorry I tagged that guinea pig.

“Because I might be angry, sir, but I’m not heartless.”


This All Started with Peanuts

“I understand what you’re saying, Officer, and I’m tired you darkening my doorstep too. But this here is a big misunderstanding. See, I thought we were people. But apparently my neighbor Big Dick thinks we’re goddamned savages who give out peanuts on Halloween. Who the hell wants that?

“Sure, me and him go back a while. I mean, I understand I shot his son in the ass and accidentally burned down his house, but that’s a different story. This all started with the peanuts.

“Couple years back, one of the neighbors suggested a decorating competition. Knowing what she knew about these things, my wife declined—and for good reason. I had the sense to agree.

“That is, until Big Dick started running his yap. Tensions were already running high after I confronted him about the peanuts, namely because of my boy’s allergies. But Dick makes it his mission to tell every person in three blocks I’m a pussy, I’m scared of the decorations and whatnot.

“Childish, right? So, I didn’t pay it no mind. But then kids at school started saying stuff to my son, and I won’t abide that. I told Dick I’d carve my jack o’ lantern with an extra small hole so his pecker wouldn’t fall out.

“He’s been known to fuck produce on occasion.

“Anyway, we set out to decorate, and decorate we did. My wife made witches from fabric and old brooms. I got a big trough from pop’s farm for the cauldron. It was a beaut, I don’t mind telling you. Of course, I had to outdo myself with some dry ice. Looked great when it was foaming, but didn’t look so good when Little Dick got the idea to put it in our drinks. Or refrigerator. I got no idea what he was going to do but the dumb shit didn’t realize dry ice ain’t really ice. And apparently neither did Big Dick, because as the little one came running up to the house, his dad ripped off the ice, skin and all. Boy started screaming, swinging his hand around and, well, they won the contest that year.

“The next year, though, we came out ready. The judges liked blood and guts and shit? Forget the witches and dry ice. We went for straight-up murder. We ran down to the butcher and traded him some plumbing work for bones and put them around the yard. That didn’t scare the kids enough so I took the chain off my saw, just ripped it and ran after them. That got ’em pretty good. Then Big Dick counters by spraying shaving cream on his dogs and faking like he was going to let him loose. Which wasn’t really cool because he told me drunk one night that a raccoon had bit the damn thing. Then he got his brother, who was a mortician I might add, to bring a couple things home from the office, if you know what I mean.

“Yessir. Cadavers.

“No, I don’t think that’s legal either.

“Anyway, that pushed our wives over the edge. They put the kibosh on it. But ol’ Dick couldn’t let it go. Keep needling me, got his kids to needle my boy. I needed to settle this whole thing once and for all.

“See, Big Dick liked to sit on the stoop with a six of Natty Ice and let the neighborhood see he was King Shit, so I went with a classic, and before he came out, did the melted candy bar thing. It got him at first, thinking it was a turd, but then he saw the peanuts and saw the gag, so to one-up me, show me there was no tricking him, he picked it up and ate it whole.

“Officer, you need to know something. I kept all the bags of peanuts he’d given my boy. And I ate them. And I let nature run its course.

“Of course I wore gloves. I’m not a goddamned savage. But I’ll tell you what, after he chewed those first couple times and realization hit him? It would’ve been worth it without gloves.

“Basically, officer, what I’m saying is: you don’t give out peanuts on Halloween.”


The Season of Giving

“Yes, officer, I understand you have to call the fire chief immediately in matters like these, but—in matters like these—you need some background on me and Big Dick first. Cause there is some history.

“This whole issue started back in the nineties when Big Dick’s son, Little Dick, put some shaving cream inside my boy Charlie’s shoes. Sure, it’s just some harmless joshing, but this was the day of the big City-Poly game. They don’t do it no more, but back then, every Thanksgiving, the two high schools would play each other. Used to be at Memorial Stadium for years, but in Baltimore, all good things must come to an end.

“What? Yeah, like your Turkey Bowl, but not for sissy-boy private schools.

“My apologies, officer. Didn’t mean it that way.

“Anyway, that shaving cream messed up his good cleats, so he had to wear his old ones, and sure enough the sole of those fuckers fell off during one of his runs, making him fumble. One of the Poly players snatched it up and scored a touchdown.

“Now I was none too pleased about the loss, especially because I had money riding on the score. Way I figured, Big Dick owed me that money. He didn’t figure as much, so the only way for me to have my recompense was to take matters into my own hands the next year.

“Really, the whole thing was his fault. He wouldn’t have left his big-ass turkey soaking on the back porch, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to switch out the brining seasoning for Epsom salt. But I can assure you, after eating all that turkey, one thing they did not do was sleep.

“That’s a good one, officer. ‘Turkey Trots.’

“Anyway. My wife talked to Big Dick’s, offered to host them for dinner, like a peace treaty. I think they saw the writing on the wall and wanted to squash things before they came to a head. I mean, you saw what happened with the Christmas decorations, but I stand by my statement: You can’t fuck a man’s animatronic reindeer and not expect to get shot.

“They come over the next year. Big Dick even brings over some mashed potatoes. I says to him, ‘How the hell you get these so fluffy and white?’ Family recipe, he says. That might’ve been true, if’n your family was drywall, because those goddamned potatoes were full of caulk.

“At that point, he declared war on himself. And, well, it kind of escalated from there. One year I fill his car with corn stalks and rotten pumpkins, then he’s rearranging the gourds on our front stoop to look like dick and balls. Keep in mind my 82-year-old mother lives two houses down. That’s just poor taste.

“What? No, no. The pilgrim with his musket up his keister was definitely those neighborhood hoodlums. Yessir, same ones who cut off the Virgin Mary’s head last Christmas.

“As I was saying, I slip iron shavings into their sauerkraut in place of caraway seeds, then he puts a kidney inside our cornucopia. An actual goddamned kidney!

“Our wives eventually negotiated a cease-fire. Things were threatening to get out of hand, and frankly, I think they were tired of cleaning up. Everything was fine a while, till my youngest makes the All-City and his doesn’t. Like it was a slight.

“He decides to give my wife oyster dressing. Gram’s Special Recipe, he says. Extra moist. I couldn’t figure why he kept laughing, thought maybe he’d been at peach schnapps again. But I don’t think I have to tell the next day, when he asked if I liked the special sauce, I wasn’t pleased.

“Yes, officer. He meant semen.

“So, yeah, maybe I overreacted. Maybe this house fire is my fault. But how was I supposed to know he lost his sense of smell years ago? Sure, I guess gasoline and grease do look a lot like when they’re in a turkey fryer. But you know, his wife was always going on about wanting to remodel. And gas is expensive these days. Way I see it helped him out. After all, it is the season of giving.”


Ho Ho—Hold on a Sec: The Reindeer Situation

“It wasn’t supposed to go down like that, hear? But a man can only be pushed so far before he’s bound to spring back. And I told that fucker that I’d spring like God’s guiding my hand.

“And so you understand where I’m coming from, his daddy’d been trying to outdo me for years. At least since Eisenhower. You’re a young-un, so mind, back then there wasn’t this whole spectacle, ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and what-all. Back then, we’d crack some Bohs and have us some neighborly rivalry.

“Anyway, somewhere round ’64, ’65, things changed. Can’t remember exactly, but some money was laid, some stakes was upped, some decorations was tampered with. Huh? Course it was that sonbitch. I ain’t the type of man to lose, but when I lose, I’m a man. I don’t go round no one’s house and stick pins inside the electric socket to blow out someone’s lights. Someone’s ass get turned to fried chicken that way.


A Hundred for the Crows pt. 3

Inside the quarry building, Lester found an office housing only two desks and a row of filing cabinets. A pad of blotter paper sat on each desk, along with a pen set and blank name plates. A thick layer of dust covered everything, as if all the workers had simultaneously quit or just disappeared. He heard scuffling toward the back and fought the urge to run. Jacob was a tough bastard when he was younger, and the years in this hellhole could only serve to fortify that, but where Lester’s family was concerned, no amount of caution would be unwarranted. If Hank got the drop on Jacob, if there were more men, Lester didn’t know any of it, so he slinked along the walls, trying to stay to any available shadow.

The first room had its shades drawn, but Lester could see enough through the thin slices that the room was empty. He stood quiet, tried to quell the blood rushing through his ears. The scuffling was further down, at the end of the hallway. He willed his breath away, then crept across the carpet, standing before the door with the bowie knife cocked back.

For years he kept the knife on his person, waiting for his daddy to feel treacherous again and meet the same end as his mother with the same knife. He’d had a hard time reconciling himself with murdering his own kin, but figured once his daddy inflicted himself upon Lester, he’d have no problem swinging the knife. Once he met Marnie, though, once Nathaniel came along, that anger just drifted away like smoke, and the knife became more of a reminder of his mother than a promise of death.

Lester wrapped his fingers around the handle, took a long breath to steel himself, then set his hand on the door and charged in.

Reams of chewed paper sat on the built-in shelves. Two thick rats scurried up the sides, disappearing through a hole in the ceiling. Black pellets and bits of pulp decorated the floor. Lester pressed his fist against his hip, breathing in and out through his nose to let the anger settle. Not like charging through a door hadn’t created enough racket to tip his hand, but he didn’t need to tear shelves from the walls and bring more attention. He spit on the floor and started to turn when he heard the click.

‘You better pull that trigger now, Hank, less I get a chance to turn,’ he said. ‘If I turn, you die.’

He heard a quick exhalation through the nose, a snuffed laugh.

‘I don’t give a fuck about that land, but I will crawl through Hell to protect my family. I’ll keep walking with all your bullets in me until I find them safety. Then I’ll track you down and gut you top-to-toe.’ He cleared his throat. ‘This is your chance.’

‘That land was my birthright.’

‘Your old man lost it. I didn’t even want the damn place.’

‘Well, you got it.’ He dislodged the knife from Lester’s hand then shoved him down the hall. ‘Come see what it got you.’

Lester opened the door with his face and tripped over the molding but managed to stay on his feet until his eyes adjusted to the darkness and he saw Marnie, her face so bruised it melded with the shadows, her shirt ripped and splattered with blood. Nathaniel stood behind her, visibly unharmed but with eyes shining with some animal combination of terror and fury. Maybe it was the same thing. Jacob perched himself on a stool behind them, smoking a cigarette and clicking his bootheels against the wooden legs while spinning the chamber of the revolver in his right hand. Lester started to run to them but held himself steady when Jacob snapped the chamber shut.

‘And so the prodigal brother returns,’ Jacob said.

‘Think you got your Bible stories mixed up.’

He hopped off his stool and flicked the cigarette into the void behind them. It left a red arc in the darkness before disappearing, leading Lester to believe that was the old quarry. ‘You killed them crops and let me take the beatings. You let him gut her like a hog and he gave it all to you anyway.’

‘He didn’t give it to me. You shanghaied me, stuck there with him. Fourteen years, it was just me and him.’

‘That land was my future. That should’ve been my family there.’

‘Wasn’t really our land to begin with, Jacob. Red man was there before Hank’s daddy lost it to ours.’

‘That was my birthright.’

Lester spit on the ground before him. ‘You and Hank watching the same pictures? You seem to have similar gripes with me.’

Hank shoved him with the barrel. ‘Shut your hole, you damn fool.’

Marnie gave out something between a grunt and yelp. Lester told her everything was going to be okay.

‘So what’s your plan, boys? I’m supposed to sign something, give a handshake and you take the place? What?’

Jacob had a little swagger to his step, letting the gun hang loose at his waist. ‘Plan is, I shoot your boy, let Hank here give your wife some maritals then shoot her, then take care of you. That what you’re looking for?’

Lester saw Nathaniel watching the revolver, his fingers flexing. Lester put his hands up and shrugged at Jacob, said, ‘I’d say it sounds like you got it all planned out,’ as Nathaniel lunged at Jacob, snatching the revolver from his hand.

He felt Hank’s            arm wrap around his neck, felt the barrel against his temple. He smelled the whiskey sweating from Hank’s pores.

‘Put it down, boy,’ Jacob said, hands held up to calm the boy. ‘Trust me, you don’t want to watch a parent die.’

‘Then tell him to let him go,’ Nathaniel said.

‘It does things to you,’ Jacob said. ‘Things you can’t undo, things that won’t be dulled by any number of bottles. Things you’ll see when you sleep for the rest of your life.’

‘Then let him go,’ Nathaniel said.

Jacob shook his head. ‘Nothing doing, son. Put it down before he ruins you like your daddy ruined me.’

Marnie tried to speak but the broken teeth shredded her words to unintelligible bits.

Hank let the hammer click back.

‘Toque la tierra,’ Nathaniel said. ‘En tres.’

‘Mijo,’ Lester said.

‘Hazlo!’

Lester took a deep breath, said, ‘Te amo, mijo,’ then let his knees collapse as a shot rang out. Hank grunted and his arm tightened as two more gunshots fired, Lester’s side exploding in bright white this time. He fell to the ground, Hank’s twitching body landing on top of him. The knife clattered on the ground beside him. He stretched out an arm, trying to pull himself free but felt the wound in his side rip open as he moved. Grunts in the darkness just above him. Jacob had his hands wrapped around Nathaniel’s trying to wrestle the gun free. Marnie had her arms wound through Jacob’s and was trying to push him aside. Jacob shoved his leg in front of Nathaniel then pushed him, flipping him over on his back. Jacob dragged a hand across his mouth, wiping away the blood, then stood over Nathaniel with the gun at the end of his arm.

Lester dug his toes into the ground and pushed himself from under the dead man, grabbing the knife and swinging it at Jacob’s thigh. His howl rang out like a coyote’s. Lester stabbed again and stuck the blade in the front of Jacob’s knee before falling back to the ground. Jacob hobbled back, screaming twice more before tottering backwards over the edge of the quarry. His voice echoed for long minutes.

Marnie’s face appeared over Lester’s.

‘I’m sorry it took so long to get back home,’ Lester said. ‘This is my fault.’

‘You damn fool,’ Marnie said, cupping her hands around Lester’s chin. If he hadn’t hung on every word she’d said for the last eight years, he wouldn’t have been able to understand her, teeth broken as they were. ‘Why didn’t you drop like Nathaniel told you to?’

‘Tried. Didn’t do it fast enough.’

‘Help me stand you up.’

NikKorponNik Korpon is the author of STAY GOD, OLD GHOSTS, BY THE NAILS OF THE WARPRIEST and BALTIMORE STORIES: VOLUMES ONE and TWO. His stories have bloodied the pages and screens of Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, 3:AM, Out of the Gutter, Everyday Genius, Speedloader, Warmed&Bound and a bunch more. He is an editor for Dirty Noir and Rotten Leaves, and reviews books for Spinetingler, NoirJournal and The Nervous Breakdown. He also co-hosts LAST SUNDAY, LAST RITES, a monthly reading series. He lives in Baltimore.

‘Can’t,’ Lester said. ‘Get the boy and drive back to town. Get some help.’

‘Dad,’ Nathaniel yelled to him. ‘Dad, he has the keys.’

Lester squinted away a wave of nausea. ‘How deep is it?’

The boy’s silence set Lester’s head spinning.

He touched Marnie’s hand. ‘You two need to run. Now. Fast as you can.’

‘I can’t leave you.’

‘You can’t stay. And I can’t go.’

Marnie opened her mouth to argue but snapped it shut then kissed him hard on the mouth. She called out to her son and they ran.

Lester tipped his head back to watch their silhouettes disappear into the night then trained his eyes on the moon. The stars poked holes in the black sky, the moon casting a silvery highlight on the surrounding rocks. A coyote bayed somewhere in the desert. He closed his eyes to focus his hearing, trying to determine how far away it was. In the silence, he could faintly make out the soft echo of his brother’s voice at the bottom of the quarry. Another coyote answered, this one significantly closer than the first.

‘You wanted to fill daddy’s shoes so bad, didn’t you?’ he called out. ‘Well, you hear that sound, Jacob?’

Jacob said something that was lost to the rocks.

‘Reckon they’ll oblige you.’

The coyote bayed again, closer now.


A Hundred for the Crows pt. 2

The midnight desert always held a special holiness for Lester. In the time after Jacob had left home, he’d tiptoe around his father’s drunken mass and out to the porch to watch the stars poke holes in the darkness, sky that same color as the onyx pieces he’d find when digging in the fields. He’d listen to the javelinas huffing through the fields, the bats and owls flapping through the night. It was about the only time that, despite there only being the two of them, the air felt still inside the house. Lester tried to let it all absorb into his skin like salamanders did water, carry it with him until the calm evaporated.

Hurtling through the night desert on two wheels, though, that was no time for Lester to become lost in revelry, revisiting a time that was probably only worth its salt when the memories were covered in dust. Lester wove around saguaro cacti, squinting his eyes to keep watch for the shimmer of moonlight on a kangaroo rat’s back, the highlighted fur of a jackrabbit. He opened the throttle for a moment then pulled it back, telling himself that an extra few miles-per-hour wouldn’t help his family when he hit a rock and split his head open like a walnut, leaving himself splayed out for the coyotes.

When he’d heard that Jacob had become part of the law, Lester understood. It was a logical step, considering their childhood, that he’d want to effect some peace and order. He never could figure out why Jacob ended up in El Pozo, though. Maybe it was the same reason Mabel’s granddaddy had for being in Ningunita, that his legs just couldn’t carry him any farther. The literal translation of El Pozo was hole, but held a meaning closer to pit or cesspool. Lester’d tried to teach his son, Nathaniel, a few words in Spanish and Navajo, hoping it might help him get on with some of the boys in town. He also showed him how to shoot, using the water tower as a target. Just in case the language familiarity didn’t work. To Lester, every shot Nathaniel lodged in the metal side of the tower was a bullet in his daddy’s chest. They would shoot every afternoon until Marnie called them in for dinner.

Off in the distance, a faint pink glow became visible over the horizon. El Pozo shouldn’t be too much farther. Lester opened the throttle.

 

He pulled into town as the sun crested above the mesas. Main Street slumbered before him, the storefronts dimmed. The only people he encountered were a few milkmen and young boys on bikes throwing newspapers. He stopped into the one restaurant with lights on and asked where he might find the police.

The wrinkled man behind the counter cocked his head, considering Lester. ‘Where you from, son?’

‘Pardon me?’

He set plates out on the counter for future customers, a fork and knife on each one. ‘We ain’t had police for a spell. Sheriff got rid of them when he came on. Picked himself up two deputies. Now they keep watch, make sure things are as they like.’

Lester glanced outside. A row of wooden posts stood before the restaurant, fairly pointless except for tying up a dog during the meal. Maybe Jacob had been promoted to deputy. If not, they would probably know where to find him.

‘Where could I find this sheriff, then?’

The wrinkled man pulled off a meal ticket, licked the tip of the pencil a few times and drew a crude map. Lester slipped it into his pocket.

The man called out to Lester, ‘Sure you don’t want some coffee first?’ but Lester just let the door slam.

 

It was more of a house than a station, where the map led him. Lester was hesitant to knock, fearing the old man might’ve been pulling some local stunt, but his eyes were burning with a lack of sleep and he let his hand fall on the brass knocker. The sound echoed through the inside of the house. After a long quite minute, Lester debated knocking again, then turned around to leave. He stopped when the door opened.

‘I can help you?’ The voice was older and had been soaked in grain alcohol then left out in the sun and wind, but Lester would’ve recognized it anywhere.

He turned around and waited, watched as recognition crept across Jacob’s face.

‘Holy hell,’ Jacob said. ‘You got big.’

‘There was only one of us to eat. I almost got a full-portion.’

‘You always were crafty.’ Jacob gave his best smile and Lester saw his blunt and gnarled teeth. They were the same color as the star badge pinned to his left breast. He wondered if Jacob slept in his uniform, lest someone commandeer it during the night and assume power.

‘You got a bed I can use a spell?’

‘You hear about the world-famous beds of El Pozo and come to see for yourself?’

Lester propped himself up against a porch post. He swallowed, keeping the rising blackness of exhaustion from overtaking him. ‘Hank McCray took Marnie and Nathaniel. I don’t give him back his land, I don’t get back my family.’

‘Daddy won it from Buck McCray in a card game.’

‘Daddy always cheated at poker.’

Jacob shrugged. ‘So?’

‘So I’m going to lie down a bit, then track him down and gut him where he stands.’ Lester pushed himself off the post and took two steps toward the house. ‘So, Sheriff, can I use your bed or what?’

 

Lester woke to the sound of banging. He ground his palms against his eyes, trying to get himself together. The banging continued. In the breezeway, he could see the blood red glow of a setting sun pass through the window. Someone was knocking on the door. He opened it to find a young man in his dress browns, presumably one of the deputies.

The man pushed past Lester, his head on a swivel. ‘Why’d you lock the door?’

‘I just woke up.’

When the deputy found the adjacent rooms suitably empty, he grabbed Lester’s arm, pulling him out the door. ‘Sheriff tracked down the man with your family.’

‘Where?’ Lester started toward his bike.

NikKorponNik Korpon is the author of STAY GOD, OLD GHOSTS, BY THE NAILS OF THE WARPRIEST and BALTIMORE STORIES: VOLUMES ONE and TWO. His stories have bloodied the pages and screens of Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, 3:AM, Out of the Gutter, Everyday Genius, Speedloader, Warmed&Bound and a bunch more. He is an editor for Dirty Noir and Rotten Leaves, and reviews books for Spinetingler, NoirJournal and The Nervous Breakdown. He also co-hosts LAST SUNDAY, LAST RITES, a monthly reading series. He lives in Baltimore.

‘Edge of town.’ The deputy opened the door of his cruiser, watching Lester.

‘You better drive fast, son.’ He kicked over the engine a few times but the only response he got was a sad sputter. He shook the bike back and forth and opened the gas tank. He must’ve been more sleep deprived than he thought, because he’d normally never leave himself with less than a quarter tank, and he thought he’d filled up on the way back from Mexico. No telling how long you’d be before seeing another filling station. In his life, never had he been that tired nor careless.

The deputy called over to him, said to get in. Lester set the bike upright and climbed into the passenger seat, barely closing the door before the deputy spit rocks with his tires. Lester watched the dust cloud fade behind him.

‘You got a gun?’ the deputy said.

‘No. Should I?’

The boy glanced down at his own holster for a flash then kept his eyes on the horizon and drove.

 

They pulled up to an abandoned quarry as the sun whispered below the horizon. In the parking lot, Lester saw another dented cruiser parked at a severe angle. He had the door open before the deputy had even stopped and sprinted to the main building. The pieces of corrugated metal siding weren’t plumb with one another, giving the impression the building had been erected quickly and without much thought to structural integrity. The door stood cracked open. Lester had just laid his hand on the knob when the deputy spit rocks again, the tail-end of the car swerving as he tore away from the quarry. Lester pulled the bowie knife from his boot and entered.


A Hundred for the Crows pt.1

When Lester returned to his land after the twelve-hour ride back from re-burying his daddy, he found his house vibrating with emptiness. His voice echoed off the wood floors, off the tin dishes sitting in soapy water in the ceramic sinks, off the bare wood walls adorned with only two photographs. He stood in the kitchen, looking around as if his wife and son might be hiding beneath the folded Navajo blankets on the deacon bench. Faintly, he could smell burnt coffee and cornbread.

The funeral man had sent word two days earlier. Seemed the gravediggers hadn’t buried his daddy’s body deep enough and the coyotes caught scent. Lester was only supposed to be gone until sundown—the next morning at the latest—but coyotes have a tendency to scatter their food. He wasn’t happy about having to ride from the Navajo Nation down to Mexico but it was his father’s wish to be buried there. Even though his daddy was a mean bastard, Lester was still a son, and it took him damn near a whole day to collect and account for the bones to make sure everything would be interred within blessed ground.

Outside, he heard feet scuffling. He walked outside and was surprised to find one of the local Navajo boys, standing in the dirt at the edge of the porch with his back toward Lester. The boy kicked his toe at the ground and wouldn’t meet Lester’s eye. He glanced over the boy’s shoulder to the machine barn and the heavy rusted chains hanging through their eyelets, all the motorcycles and cars still safe inside. His Indian sat untouched beside the porch, the engine clicking as it cooled from the ride.

‘You need help, son?’

The boy backed up a hair but still refused to face him. Lester heard the boy mumbling but couldn’t understand. Whether it was volume of voice or origins of words, he couldn’t tell.

‘Speak up, son. You can turn around. I’m not one to raise a hand.’

He swore he felt the sun dimming, the boy moved so slow. Down in the town, all the Navajo boys ran after each other too fast and they were covered in similar amounts of dust so that faces blended together, and Lester couldn’t say he recognized this one. But he was pretty damn sure that boy didn’t normally sport a weeping gash on his cheek nor a rock-sized welt on his forehead. He spit in the dirt and stepped off the porch, then pulled the handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to the boy, nodding toward his cheek.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Benny.’ He squinted when he pressed the cloth against his face.

‘You got a good sense of direction, don’t you?’

Benny nodded.

‘Then why are you on my land?’

Benny looked to the side, then up, finally, at Lester. His eyes reminded Lester of the color this dirt used to be when he was a boy, back when his father raised actual horses, before Lester converted the family business into horsepower.

Benny mumbled something. Lester knelt before him. ‘Tell me, please, before I lose my temper.’

The boy looked over Lester’s shoulder then met his eyes. ‘Mister Hank said your daddy took his land, so he take your family. He gets land, you get family. He doesn’t, you don’t.’

Lester pressed a hard clump of dirt between his thumb and forefinger, watched the dust blow away in the wind. ‘He the one to give you those scrapes?’

Benny nodded. ‘Said he kill me, I don’t tell you.’

Standing up straight, Lester looked out over the fields. The mesas and boulders cut stark black shapes in the setting sun, throwing shadows across the scrabbled fields where cattle used to graze. Dots of light shone through the holes in the old water tower, a speck for each errant bullet Lester had put through it when he was learning to shoot doves and crows. Lester’s daddy had turned the leather strop on Jacob, Lester’s brother, and blamed him for spilling the water and causing the land to dry up, the steer and cattle slowly withering to dust. When Jacob stood tall against him, he went at Jacob with the bowie knife itself, and would have bled him dry if his mother hadn’t put herself in the middle. Jacob ran out of the house and kept running. While his father killed another bottle on the front porch, Lester buried his mother on the edge of the fields, and he had always held tight to the notion that it was her blood that poisoned the crops. Truth was, though, that if his daddy hadn’t been so intent on keeping his throat wet with whiskey, he might’ve noticed the grasses drying up long before. Turning to engine repair was the only thing Lester could do to keep the land, but sometimes he wondered if he should’ve just let the government take his half-acre of hell and moved to California like Marnie had asked him to.

Lester looked down at the boy drawing shapes in the dirt with a stick.

‘I don’t have a helmet for you,’ he said, ‘so you’re just going to have to hold on tight.’

Lester kicked over the Indian’s engine and hoisted Benny up behind him then set off toward Ningunita.

 

Benny hopped off and scampered around the back of the drug store as soon as Lester parked. The streets were covered in sand and dust on account of the wind, making it look almost like there never was any asphalt to begin with. A thread of smoke twisted over the top of the butcher’s shop. Smelled like someone was burning tires in the back, and Lester wondered if that was how he got his smoked pork so rich. He hung his helmet on the handlebars then pushed open the doors of Belle’s.

Mabel stood behind the gnarled wood bar, cigarette perched between two stained fingers, her thumb erratically flicking the end. She wore a men’s white oxford with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, dirt clinging to the sweat stains. Two lumps in grease-stained coveralls kept the corner from floating off into space, and a dried rose sat in a mason jar on top of the piano in the corner. Mabel’s grandfather had been caught in the Gold Rush current and swept from New York to the west coast. When his destiny manifested itself as lead and rocks, he turned back and got as far as Arizona. He opened a saloon and named it after his dead wife, Belle. Mabel’s mother, Isabelle, gave the building to Mabel when she passed. The place wasn’t designed to look like an old west saloon so much as it hadn’t managed to give up the ghost, but Lester thought decay suited the place well.

‘You come to pay your tab?’

NikKorponNik Korpon is the author of STAY GOD, OLD GHOSTS, BY THE NAILS OF THE WARPRIEST and BALTIMORE STORIES: VOLUMES ONE and TWO. His stories have bloodied the pages and screens of Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, 3:AM, Out of the Gutter, Everyday Genius, Speedloader, Warmed&Bound and a bunch more. He is an editor for Dirty Noir and Rotten Leaves, and reviews books for Spinetingler, NoirJournal and The Nervous Breakdown. He also co-hosts LAST SUNDAY, LAST RITES, a monthly reading series. He lives in Baltimore.

Lester gave her his James Dean smile. ‘Next time?’

She snorted a laugh through her nose then pulled out a chipped tumbler and sloshed some  bourbon into it.

He swung a leg over the stool and tipped back half the drink. The two at the end just sat there staring into their drinks.

‘Mabel,’ he said. ‘Where’s your nephew?’

She squinted one eye and took a long drag, considering him through the smoke. If she’d tried a little harder, she could’ve killed a whole cigarette at once.

After a long minute, she said, ‘I don’t get into feuds where blood is involved, but I heard he was headed down to El Pozo.’

‘He been in contact with my brother?’

She pulled out a tumbler for herself, this one with a complete rim. ‘I told you I don’t like it when blood is involved. Either kind.’

‘I heard you the first time.’

He threw back the rest of his drink and stood.

‘You going to kill him?’ She swirled the liquor around in her glass, like she was afraid her drinking it would seal his fate.

Lester glanced around the bar, at the tarnished mirror behind Mabel. He pointed at the rose on the piano. ‘Things don’t stay alive on their own. You got to work to do that.’

He walked out of the bar and kicked over the engine. El Pozo was well over a hundred miles for the crows, more than two for cars. Lester didn’t have that long.

He set out across the desert.


MONTEVIDEO

City of Baltimore Motor Vehicle Accident Report

Report #: 581053
Date: 06/28/1997
Time: 12:57 reported. 14:23 arrived on scene
Report Type: Hit and Run
Photos: Yes
Investigating Office/ID: McNally, James 8538
Street Name: 2800 block Orleans Street, Orleans and Kenwood
Traffic Signal: No
In Intersection:
Yes
Type of Unit: Driver
Name: Registered to Jones’s Used Cars. Driver fled scene before first officer arrived.
Address: 1870 North Gay Street. Baltimore MD. 21213
Type of Vehicle: Lexus LS400. Gold
Model and Year: LS400. 1995
Registr and State: RGA241. MD
Type of Unit: Pedestrien
Name: Unknown. #2 Female
Address: Unknown
Type of Vehicle:
N/A
Model and Year: N/A
Registr and State: N/A
Describe Incident: Veh1 left facing ENE, crossed oncoming traffic. Front left corner panel crushed, crushed right rear quarter panel. Reminder of Veh1 clean. Veh2 fled immediatly. Plenty of onlookers, no witnesses. “Mr. Harry” and “Mr. Jones” overheard in crowd. Officers canvassing three-block radius. Vic1 pinned against buildding face of 2802 Orleans by front bumper of Veh1. Blood spray centered approx 5 ft from ground, approx. 4 ft high, arcing right. By depth of impact zone and spray, assume 40-45 mph. Didn’t realize people were really 70% water.

Interior search conducted. Blood smear on steering wheel, spots on windshield. Two teeth on dashboard. Beretta on passenger seat, looks .40. Glove box searched, discovered S&W 9mm. Both weapons empty, no scent of cordite. No live ammunnition in Veh1. Labs pending. One American Airlines ticket for O’Donal, Matthew in glove box. Dep. 06/28/1997 13:20 BWI-MVD (Montevideo, Urugay.) 8” blond hairs in rear seat, bagged for lab. Dark smears on rear upholstry, approx 1.5” long. “Learn Spanish in Three Weeks” paperback found under driver seat. Small tear in passenger seat. 2” piece of black cloth, torn edges, looks to be from a woman’s dress/blouse.

Trunk search conducted, discovered Baltimore Orioles athletic bag containing approx $150,000 in $50’s and $20’s, uniform bound. White residue, tastes like baking soda. Labs pending. Small maroon London Fog suitcase, brown leather accents. Rainbow ribbon tied on handle. Half-unzipped, men’s khaki linen pants and black shirt in plain view. Seven calling cards scattered around. Pieces of ceramic crab along edges of trunk. Crushed boquet of lilies in sidewall. No ID for driver of Veh1.

 

Baltimore-Washington International Airport Abandoned Luggage Report

Report #: 425-AD-3743
Date: 06/28/1997
Employee/ID: Silver, Bertina DE-3104
Location Recovered: Concourse C- AA13
Time Recovered: 13:49
Name: No Tag
Address: N/A
City/State: N/A
Phone: N/A
Flight #: 247
Flight Destination: MVD- Montevideo, Uruguay
Transfer Points (if applicable): MIA- Miami
Departure Time: 13:20
Baggage Type: 02
Color: Maroon
Make: London Fog
Baggage Description: Large suitcase, brown leather accents. Broken right wheel. Rainbow ribbon tied around handle. Heel from black stiletto sticking from shoe compartment.

Additional Notes: Bag checked by Skycap Thomas, Dick (AA-2849) for Corbier, Mary at 12:05. Skycap stated Ms. Corbier gave two different names, seemed distraught. Engaged Skycap in conversation but sounded forced. Ms. Corbier also tried to hide small rip on bottom of black dress. Skycap alerted supervisor of suspicious behavior. Supervisor called detonation squad, arrived 12:27. Skycap saw Ms. Corbier hailing Checker Cab at approx. 12:55. Dest. unknown. State Police alerted.