El Dulce

“I didn’t call any plumbers,” Louis barked at us through the tiny slit made by the chain lock.   His breath smelled bad and that didn’t do anything for my mood.  My head hurt and the aspirin I took in the van wasn’t even touching it. I sighed and stepped back.   I looked at Green Johnny and he kicked in the door with maniacal glee.  At least one of us was in a good mood. 

The apartment was a mess; a disaster of take-out containers, empty beer cans, and candy wrappers. The garbage crunched under our feet as our noses were assaulted by a spoiled bouquet of chocolate and sweat.   Green Johnny set the tool box down and checked the bedroom and bathroom to make sure we were all alone. 

“God damn, Louis,” I said, “This place smells terrible.  Least you could have done was tidy up a bit, maybe taken a shower. It’s not like you didn’t know we were coming.”

Louis was standing in the center of the room between a table covered with garbage and a small mound of crumpled cans.  His early bravado had disappeared like a deadbeat dad.

“I-I didn’t call f-for a plumber” he stuttered.

I don’t blame the man for being scared.  Greenie and I have been working collections for the Boss for a while and people don’t like seeing us.  I square the Boss’s ledgers with a flair for the Old Testament.  Green Johnny, well, he’s easily suggestible. 

“We’re clear, Priest,” Green Johnny said, flashing me a thumbs up. I looked over at Louis.

“You know we’re not plumbers, but we can’t come up in here dressed like hired killers.  This isn’t Reservoir Dogs.

Louis just stared at me. 

“See, Louis, I’m going to level with you.  That van was really fucking hot and we had to wear these uncomfortable outfits all because you didn’t pay the Boss’s tribute.  30% off the top and you can continue to do…shit, what do you do again?  Greenie and I have a bet. 

“I-I robbed a store.”

“Greenie, I owe you a steak.  I thought our boy Louis here liked to dabble in the ‘ole plug and tug. Now, if you’ll just give us 40% —that’s 30% for the Boss and 10% for our trouble—we’ll let you get back to your shithole existence.”

“I d-didn’t get a-any m-money.”

“I’m sorry, what?” My temples pounded.

“I r-robbed a c-candy s-store.  S’alls I g-got was c-candy.” 

“Priest, did he just say what I think he said?”

“I think he did.  Toss the place.  He’s gotta be lying.”

I knocked a few candy wrappers off of a chair and watched Louis as Green Johnny searched for the cash.  After ten minutes of banging and cursing, he was still empty handed.

I wiped the sweat off my forehead with the rough cotton sleeve of the overalls.   My headache was turning into a migraine.

“Aw, hell.  We’ll just take our cut out of the candy. Louis, where’s the candy?”

He looked around the apartment at all of the candy wrappers, despair clinging to him like body odor.  

“Greenie, you remember your nephew’s birthday party?” I said, rubbing my temples. “How all those kids hit that piñata until its guts bled candy?

Without answering me, Greenie opened the tool box and took out some rope and threw me some zip-ties. Louis tried to run but he slipped on the garbage. We pounced on him and zip-tied his hands behind his back. 

“Just remember, Louis, you did this to yourself,” I said.

Green Johnny held him still while I harnessed him with the rope.  We slung one end of the rope over the crossbeam in his ceiling and tried to pull him up.  The beam shattered into splinters and Louis fell with a thunk.   He looked up at us, his eyes wet and pleading.

“We’re just looking for our 40%, s’not personal,” I said, as Greenie handed me a crowbar from the toolbox.    

We beat him until our arms ached, each whack in cadence with the pounding in my head.

Louis was a shitty piñata; what came out of him didn’t look like candy at all.   


Square

Indistinct shapes danced in the windows as the stolen Toyota’s speedometer twitched toward ninety.   Small tremors filled the cab and Joel wondered if the pickup truck would make it to Elvis Leary’s apartment on Newtown Road.  He had some things to say to the man.

Joel tightened his grip on the vibrating steering wheel and reflected on the events that brought him to this moment.  The easy in-and-out job that went tits up, the subsequent arrest and too-quick trial all floated dreamily through his consciousness, like they were scenes from a movie.   The most damning memory appeared clear, however:  He had served five years’ hard time in Brunswick because his partner went canary on him. Angrily, he took a pull from his cigarette and opened the window. The crisp December air stung his bald head like alcohol on razor cuts. His jaw clamped tighter.


Craig County

Boyd and I got the call on the radio sometime around mid-afternoon. Apparently, Jed and Tyler Garvey were back to cooking meth up in their trailer a few miles north of Caswell holler. Lorraine’s voice crackled something about military-grade weapons, but we couldn’t hear all of it on account of the mountains. I felt a jolt of anxious adrenaline as Boyd pushed down on the accelerator and we started tearing ass up further into Craig County.

Outside my window the leaves were starting to change and the trees stood like colorful sentries guarding a population of nervous deer. I lowered my window and let in the pungent earthiness of autumn. Within a few seconds I was out in my tree stand, freezing except for the coffee in my thermos, my gun nestled between my thigh and tree trunk. I looked down and saw deer walking back and forth underneath me, miles away from the crime and violence of Appalachian poverty. Boyd’s voice jerked me back into reality.

“God damn it, Jimmy! I need you to pay attention. This is your last chance to keep this job. Just ‘cause your dad’s the sheriff doesn’t mean you can be off in dreamland during calls.”

I told Boyd I was alright, looked straight ahead and went back to my tree stand. I wasn’t doing this job because of my father; I was doing it for my mother. She was murdered by some junkie a few years back.

About twenty silent minutes later we saw the Garvey’s trailer on our left. Behind it was an old camper, its once blue stripes faded to grey.

Boyd said he thought they were probably cooking in the camper. I nodded. He pulled in and grabbed the shotgun. He told me to cover him with my Glock.

We hadn’t stepped three feet out of our car before we heard the discharge of a rifle. Boyd identified us as sheriff’s deputies and told Jed Garvey that we would disregard that first shot as long as he and his brother would come outside unarmed. Jed lowered his weapon a couple of inches, his dirty brow furrowed in thought.

After a few moments, Jed’s brow loosened and the rifle was heading south when we heard Tyler scream something about fucking pigs and state’s rights. We saw a small dark object lobbed in our direction.

“Grenade,” Boyd yelled.

We ducked back inside the car and shrapnel pierced the metal of the police cruiser’s door. Luckily, it missed me by a few inches. Before I could say anything, Boyd jumped out of the car and let loose with his shotgun. Jed fell to the ground in a trashy pool of blood. Boyd was on his way to the trailer when he stepped on something that sounded like metal. I heard a twip and he was on the ground, his ankle a bloody mess from the bear trap.   He turned to say something to me, but I never heard it; a high-powered round tore through Boyd’s head, leaving bone and brain in its wake. Panicking, I fired several shots into the trailer as I ran to check on my partner. I don’t know how successful I was, but nothing fired back at me. I checked Boyd’s pulse and I couldn’t find anything.   I belly-crawled up to the trailer; one of my bullet holes gave me a 9mm-sized view of inside.

Inside I saw Tyler Garvey lying on his side, his right hand clutching his gut. A few inches in front of him was an assault rifle just out of reach for his left hand. I got up and kicked in the trailer door. I bent down closer to Tyler to see if he was still alive. When I was a few inches from his body he lurched for the rife. Instinctively, I shot him in the face.

Covered in blood and bone fragments, I stumbled out to the car and called Loraine. I have no idea if or when back up came. I was too busy watching the deer underneath my tree stand.


Witch Hunt

Cooking fires smoldered, bull frogs croaked and the occasional dog barked as me and Green Johnny stumbled through the poorly lit center lane of the sleepy Stetson River RV- Park at three in the morning on a Tuesday night. Connor Dawkins’s rig was three units on the right and we could already hear the muffled thump of the Wu-Tang Clan and smell the pungency of some expensive weed.

“Guess we know where the hundred thousand went,” I said to Green Johnny, pointing to the Mercedes and Lexus emblems on the cars parked out front.

We crept up next to the RV door.  Green Johnny pulled out his nine and screwed in the silencer. I pulled out my Bowie. Guns are good for an initial shock, makes people question their mortality.  Knives, though, make them question their pain tolerance.

I counted down from three and Green Johnny ripped open the RV door. Inside, a naked brunette was wedged in between Connor Dawkins and some hairy man with a scar on his cheek. Green Johnny killed the Wu-Tang soundtrack with a bullet to the stereo.  The brunette shrieked, dislodged herself, grabbed a sheet and cowered in the far corner of the rig.  Scar-guy made a move towards the couch and Green Johnny put a bullet into his naked thigh, clearly nicking the femoral; he’d probably bleed out in a couple of loud, blubbery minutes. While his bleeding friend screamed, Connor Dawkins stood there, naked and pissing himself.

“Alright, Connor,” I said. “You know why we’re here.”

“I don’t have it Priest, I swear,” Dawkins said, wincing each time scar-guy screamed.

“Now Connor,” I said as I walked over and put my knife underneath his scrotum, “I really hoped you’d be smarter than this.  You see your friend over there, right? He’s screaming like a bitch and he was only shot in the leg.  Can you imagine how loud a man screams when he’s being castrated?”

Dawkins’s face turned white and he started mumbling an incoherent Lord’s Prayer.

“Green Johnny put in your ear plugs.  I think Connor here’s a screamer.”

Green Johnny reached into his pocket, I tightened my grip on the knife and Dawkins broke.

“Alright, alright, it’s gone.  I bought some shit for Stacy and Trevor, some clothes and cars.  We all smoked and snorted the rest.”

“Who are Stacy and Trevor?”

Dawkins reluctantly nodded toward the brunette in the corner and the now quiet man on the floor.

“Well shit Connor you made $100,000 disappear in a week.  I’m impressed. Green Johnny, you impressed?

“I’m impressed,” Green Johnny said. “He must be a witch.”

“A witch, huh? I like that. Connor you know what they used to do to witches?”

Dawkins started to cry and his knees wobbled.

“They would tie them up thumbs to big toes and toss them into a body of water.  If they floated they were a witch and were executed on the spot. If they didn’t float they drowned and were able to be buried on holy ground. Green Johnny here thinks you’re a witch.  I have my suspicions as well. You know, there’s only one way to find out for sure.”

We forced Dawkins and a sheet-wrapped Stacy out of the RV toward the Stetson River. Stacy tripped coming out of the rig and hit her head on the bumper of the Lexus, the thud of her head a discordant addition to the chorus of bull frogs.

“Looks like we have one less witness, Connor,” I said, glancing at Stacy and nudging him with the Bowie handle.

With Green Johnny holding a gun to his head I tied Connor’s thumbs to his toes and threw him into the river. It only took a minute for his naked ass to disappear beneath the water. We waited a few minutes to make sure, but it seems that Connor Dawkins was not a witch.


Collection Notice

It was too god damned hot as I pulled into a dusty Wal-Mart parking lot in Shamrock, Texas around 10 a.m. CST.  Shamrock, Texas was a single flashing yellow light dumped in the middle of the panhandle, halfway between Oklahoma and New Mexico.  Broke, hungry and far from home I’d decided to call on an old employer, hoping for any kind of work. I got out of my car and looked around until I spotted Skinny Jim’s pristine SUV amidst the rolling scrap yard of dirty pick-ups. Annoyingly fastidious, Skinny Jim was a barbarous son of a bitch. I wound up working with him every time I came through the Old Republic.

“How are you Paul?”

“I’m broke, hungry and hot; trying to get home. Any work for me?

He reached onto the passenger seat and grabbed a manila envelope. “All I have is a collection notice for you: first time offender, ex-whore trying to go straight, $5,000 cash upon delivery, has to be done by eight tonight.   Here’s a fifty, on me.  Get yourself a steak. You really look hungry.”

I walked back to my car and flipped through the contents of the envelope—a picture, a work address, a sandwich bag and a knife. It all seemed pretty standard though the time thing was going to be rough.  I started the ignition and a few clicks down the road I pulled into Maxine’s Bar & Grille.

I opened the door and was slapped with stale, piss-warm air. Choking back bile and an impotent sadness over the apparently broken air conditioner, I found the bar and dejectedly sat down on a stool.  The pretty bartender came up quickly smelling like lavender and jasmine mixed with sweat and stale beer. A name-tag perfectly placed over a large firm looking breast said “Becky.”

“What would you like?”

“A Budweiser and a steak, rare.”

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, that’s it, Becky”

Four Budweisers supplemented my steak. I called Becky over and ordered another one for dessert. As she placed the sweaty mug on a fresh napkin she asked me the question I’d known she was thinking since I first walked in.

“So where’re you from?”

“Virginia,” I said.

“You’re far from home.  What’re you doing all the way out here?”

“Work,” I said and made eye contact.  “My line of work brings me to all sorts of interesting places.”

“Oh yeah? What type of work is that?”

“Collections,” I said and watched her face as I took a sip of my beer.  She was classy; I only saw the nervousness cascade briefly across her face as quickly as a summer cloud shadowing the prairie sun.  Hopefully, she would handle this with the proper decorum, though part of me likes it when they beg and cry.

“Look,” she said, narrowing her eyes, “I told him I would pay him.  Work’s been slow and my kid needed braces.  I told myself I’d earn this money legit so it’s taken longer than I expected.  I just need another week. You can see I’m working alone here. ” She showed me a naked ring finger.

“Well, Becky I’ve been doing this for years and I think you’re telling me the truth.  Hell, no sense in lying, right? Honestly though I don’t care if you pour a million drafts or suck a million dicks to get that money. I have no opinion, no sympathy.  I’m just the collector.  You know what’s coming so I suggest you take a break.”

My instincts had been right about Becky.  With a resigned elegance she took a break and led me out to the employee area where the waitresses smoked and whined about their shitty tips. With her face contorted in defiant anger, not a tear escaped the “fuck you” glare as I cut off her ring finger.

“Remember,” I said, as I dropped the finger in the sandwich bag, “this is a warning. Thumb’s next.”

I left her sweating in the late afternoon heat, cradling her wound in a dirty bar rag.  I wondered if Skinny Jim would give me a bonus for being early.  I pointed the car east, cranked the air conditioner and felt $5,000 closer to home.