The New Hire

mechanic at work

“Miz Wilson, I’m towin’ in a Silverado. Engine job, pro’bly. Head gaskit.”

“Umm, b-but Dy, It’s…umm, well, but…”

“I gotta so-lution, Miz Wilson. Jus’ hold on.” Dysart hung up.

Solution? Like as in cleaning solution? Toné pressed sweaty palms to her aching temples. That morning the shop had been a hate speech billboard. Now half of Firewood wanted their cars serviced. Where was this sudden glut of business coming from? It was the middle of a hotter-than-hell Texas summer. Normally trade went as dormant as the people by the end of June. How would she find time to check out potential techs? Could she manage engine jobs fast enough to turn a profit?

As Toné trotted into the shop, phone in hand, it rang again. Caleb had shrugged into his uniform shirt. The Caprice levitated slowly on the whining lift.

“Oak Tree Motors, Toné Wilson speaking.”

“You workin’ on diesels now?” a gruff voice demanded.

“One minute, please, can I put you on hold, sir?”

Clamping her hand around the mouthpiece, Toné stage whispered, “Caleb!

He ambled over.

“Diesels…c-can you fix them?”

“What kind?” Caleb said.

“Thank you for holding, sir. What kind of diesel?”

“Ford F-three-fifty and a John Dere forty-three twenty.”

“One minute, sir.” Toné covered the phone again and told Caleb.

“Sign him up,” Caleb replied.

“But that’s a big unit…and I’ve never seen you under a diesel…I…I thought you didn’t work on those, Caleb.”

Big Tomato, Dysart’s tow truck, clattered up, both cherry-red doors popped open.

“Ain’t gonna. Can’t.” Caleb hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “But he can.”

“Who’s he?”

“Dysart’s bringin’ him.”

Shaking her head, Toné made the appointment, the rancher telling her he’d trailer in the Dere with the 350 the next day at one. She turned to see the man Caleb and Dysart thought could save the shop.

If rotund Dysart August was a Russian nesting doll, the man slouching along beside him was the little one you found in the center, no taller than Clarence and, as far Toné could tell despite baggy frayed shirt and jeans, skinnier. His clothes were faded to indeterminate colors. Lank dark blond hair fell over most of his forehead diagonally from a side part. He needed a shave. He really needed a haircut. White strings draggled where his jean hems dragged the ground. He had a toothpick wedged in the corner of his thin-lipped mouth. His shirt had the sleeves ripped off. No one would take a bet he didn’t live in a trailer. Dysart had driven him over. Did he even have a car?

Grabbing his two front molars with a grubby thumb and index finger, he tilted his head. Ice blue eyes inventoried Toné at sternum level and moved upwards. “Yer kinda cute f’a nee-gro Boss Lady,” he finally commented in a light voice with a drawl thicker than oil sludge. “Yup, yew’s cuter than everah one sez. Ah’m Ralph Edgah Chollett, an’ Ah’m th’ bes’ wrench in Rockne Countah. Ah’m fas’, too.” He folded sinewy arms, and Toné saw he had a Camaro with a Holley four-barrel emerging from a circle of flames tattooed on one, a naked woman with her hands on her knees looking back over one shoulder on the other.

No way had this pint-sized country boy seen through her uniform shirt. But it felt like he had. Should she ask him her bra color or eye color? Toné decided to give Mister Chollett a pass due to their height differential. Thank the Lord he couldn’t see her blushing.

“Je-sus, Chollett,” Caleb objected. “That ain’t no kinda way to start a job interview!”

The little redneck confronted the big biker. “Ah, hell, Cartwright, quit yer bitchin’. Ah sez she’s cute, Ah mean she’s damn cute.” He turned back to Toné, pale eyes bright with curiosity. “Ain’t none a’ these fools tol’ yew that? Wat’s wrong wid ‘em? Ain’t they got no mah-nahs? Want meh ta whoop ‘em fer ya?”

Toné tried to wipe some of the sweat off her face with her hand. She closed her eyes to block out the sight of him. “Oh Lord,” she muttered.

“Ralphie,” admonished Dysart in his thick voice. “This is why yew keep gittin’ fired.”

She had to stare. “M-Mister Chollett,” Toné faltered. “You been fired? Um…a lot?”

Ralph twitched hair out of his eyes. “If Ah hadn’t, woudn’t be axin’ fer no job, Boss Lady. How bad yew behin’?”

“Six jobs. And…then this 350 with a tractor…”

“Lew Schmidt’s. Y’know wat? His bark worse ‘n’ his bite. Pro’bly called ‘cuz he knowed Ah’m gonna be wrenchin’ ovah heah. Bin fixin’ ‘is rigs f’yeahs.”

“Is that why…but…” Toné ground to a halt. “Didn’t you used to work at Double A?”

Scratching his armpit, Ralph said, “Sure thang. But Ah got real tired a’ Julio wreckin’ Bono’s biddness. Sumpthin’s real outta kilter ovah theah. One day Bono axe meh ta change th’ vin onna Explorer. Thas’ chop shop shit. Dang. ‘Scuse mah French, Boss Lady. Anyhoo, tol’ him ta kiss mah damn ass rat in th’ centah stripe, packed mah tools, an’ lef’. Oops. Might shouda not said that, neitha.”

Toné quieted down her thoughts. What would Frank ask this compact but unkempt character? “What would you do if I told you to replace the cat on an oh nine Caddy and invoice the customer for the part?”

“Thas’ wha-run’tee werk. Ah doan’ do that kinda shi…ah stuff. Damn, Boss Lady, thas’ jus’stealin’.”

“Charging full pop for aftermarket parts?”

“Dang.” Ralph jammed his hands in his pockets. “Yew testin’ meh.” His lighting-colored eyes narrowed to make room for a grin that took over his sharp-featured face. “Ah likes yew.”

Max on the Island

Santa Marcia edit

 

The ferry arrived, if one reckoned by a much ignored poster peeling from a lamppost, two hours late. The large man didn’t mind. Like many things in the Caribbean, it got there when it got there. He sauntered onto Santa Marcia’s long public pier as the sun took on the deep gold of a pirate’s hoard, glinting on his silver mane of hair. Somewhere it’d be beer o’clock. Clifford, Santa Marcia’s lone town faced him, scattered over the steep ridge that rose to Mount Santo Christo. Max thought it looked a bit like a scaled down Larkspur Landing in Marin County, though without Highway 101 running north-south and burgeoning development. He used to love Marin…but that was another life.

Local thug-lifes lounged against rusty bollards working on their game faces, though more smiley than their American counterparts. Their eyes slid west, following Max’s relaxed progress, trying to stick him in a white man category; worker, security man, or criminal. Bosses didn’t take the ferry. Max hoped the latter guess was being made, and in a peripheral glance saw one pull out a flip-phone. Good. Where land met pier was a large dirt clearing with an impromptu street market; darker-skinned people with a sprinkling of lighter, cheap tourist trinkets, questionable food, water trucks, trucks with water barrels, small tankers with av-gas or diesel, all stirring up clouds of dust.

A Nissan Sentra with mismatched doors and fenders slid to a stop between Max and Clifford.

The driver leaned out the widow, “Hey mon, needa taxi ride?”

Max gave a snort of derision. “I’m not a cripple, this rock has to be at least three miles long. But it’s a Grenadian buck if you can steer me toward a brew. Would it be that place with all the lights?” Max pointed southwest across a curve of bay to strings of lights on a shacky structure partway up the slope.

“Yea, mon, das Yvonna’s,” said the cabbie with a sigh.

Max fished the promised dollar from a front pocket of his jeans. “No worries.”

“Hey, bon je, mon!”

Giving the cabbie an index finger to the brow salute, Max continued his saunter onto Clifford’s on main street, then uphill, past penned pigs eating what looked like compost, chickens seasoning the potholed road with white splats. No cars passed him. Yvonna’s slanting parking lot had scooters, dirt bikes, a couple work trucks with their company logos spray-painted over, and a goat. Ska thumped through tinny speakers competing with the hum of voices, accented with an occasional loud laugh. The steps actually sagged under Max’s weight, he listened for the crack of splintering wood. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d exceeded the load limits of third-world construction, at six’ six”, Max was what people referred to as; “built”.

As the denizens of Yvonna’s noticed Max, there was a hitch in the conversation, then backs were turned. He’d frequented many low dives, Yvonna’s was basement level, but the natives seemed unusually unfriendly. Max gave them a grin anyway. Bright color on ceiling caught his eye, a quick glance up revealed dozens of dangling brassieres. Nice. Max’s grin got wider as he rested one hip on a rickety rattan barstool. There was something so unfulfilled about  empty bras. Max was in a mood to remedy that.

A bartender with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes gave the bar a swipe with a grubby rag. “Carib. Just the bottle.” Max smacked a five down.

People rotated to see the remains of a swirling sunset to the southwest. Max switched to Hairouns, but after one bottle, he ordered a Kalik plus a shot of Very Strong Saint Vincent’s Rum with an inch of chilled water and a lime. “I thought people in the Grenadines were friendly. Hit me again,” he said after finishing his ounce of 169-proof kick you in the skull firewater. Who needed beer? Usually Max was able to insinuate himself into conversations, groups, but the back turning epidemic had infected everyone. The bartender continued to be as friendly as a hangnail.

At midnight Max’s head had become a felt balloon full of chicken feathers. No pain. Paying his suspiciously large tab, he leveraged himself to his feet, discovering he had to hold the edge of the bar. No place to stay and…the lights went out. Which was good, if he heard one more synthesized ska abortion he was going to yank a speaker off the wall with his teeth. Someone lit an oil lantern. Max decided that maybe Yvonna’s was closed, though no one said so. He made his way toward the stairs. One foot. Good. Other foot. Outstanding. Yeah. He could do this. Stairs. Unh oh. No railing. Max had a stern conversation with himself. Turning sideways, he two-footed his way down six stairs and stumbled into the darkness that used to be the parking lot.

“Hey, mon, ovah here,” suggested a melodic male voice.

“Yeah,” Max answered, caroming into side of a pickup truck bed. The tire dropped over him  slipped past his shoulders, wedging around his chest and upper arms. A bag was pulled over his head. One shove and Max was in the dirt rolling until a kick stopped his progress and his ankles were grabbed and tied together.

“He weigh too far f’an’ ol’ man,” melodic voice complained.

“Put him in th’ truck, fool,” said a different voice. “An’ tie him down.”

Max felt his pockets being emptied but was effectively helpless, ankle rope being pulled taut.

“Oh mon! Oh shit…looka this, he da law!”

The bag was yanked off Max’s head. “Dis true, mon?”

“Got that badge in a box of Cheerios,” Max told his unseen kidnappers.

“We gotta call…”

“Quiet, fool,” barked the grumpier assailant. “We take him somewhere.”

They re-bagged Max’s head, hoisted him into a truck bed grunting and groaning with the effort. As they roared off, Max rolled from side to side, a human top, legs flopping. Nausea clawed his throat, breathing through his nose, Max fought it off. Bent his knees as the truck slewed around a corner and braced his long legs on a wheel well. Thank God it was some variety of mini-pick-up. In a full-sized truck bed he would’ve been tenderized by the pot-holed roads. Clifford had a population of around fourteen hundred. How far could they possibly go? To the bay to dump him in the sea? Max’s head cleared slightly. That would be a problem. The noisy truck charged uphill, braked hard, bouncing Max off the tailgate. It’s motor clattered to a stop, doors banged.

A new voice joined what was escalating into an argument, so musical Max wanted to just listen, but forced himself to pick up words.

“…why here?” musical voice asked.

Max couldn’t make out the mumbled answer.

“…he is law? You stupid boy!!” Definitely female.

Come over here and get mad at me, Max thought. You’re even more melodious when angry. She sounded mature, possibly more Max’s age. So far, self-dialogue had kept him from throwing up. Light sifted through the weave of his head covering. He squeezed his eyes shut against the glare of a flashlight as the bag was pulled off.

There was absolute silence.

Melodic female voice dropped half an octave. “Right now, you boys set him loose. Birdspeed!”

Melodic male got a distinctly unharmonic whine. “No…mam…”

“Then I call Mista Em. You want dat?”

Both young men mumbled negatives. It took all three of them to get Max free. The woman held his ankles, the men wrestled the tire off. Max knew he should sit up, but couldn’t.

“Could someone help me, please, I’m going to get sick,” Max said.

The woman pulled him to a seated position with a calloused hand, her grip as strong as a man’s. She lowered the tailgate.

“Thanks, Ma’am,” Max muttered, and scooted off the truck, hanging on with one hand so he could vomit without doing a faceplant in it.

“Give me his tings,” she told the men, “and go away.”

Knowing his support was going to drive off, Max attempted to stand on his own, a strong arm wrapped his waist.

“How much dollar you have?” the woman asked him.

“A grand XCD. Mixed bills.”

“You boys wait. I count. No steal from law.”

Max kept breathing through his nose while the woman made the boys return Max’s money. When the count reached nine fifty, Max said, “That’s good enough. Why don’t you fellas take off.”

When it got quiet again, Max looked out over the town from their high vantage point. Clifford apparently had no electricity after midnight so a brilliant carpet of stars glittered over the invisible ocean. He wrapped his arm across the woman’s shoulders. She was a head and a half shorter, solidly built.

“M’am, mind if I sleep in your yard?”

“No. Pothound come. Many.” Turning them away from the seductive night vista, she guided Max across a dirt yard, telling him where to watch his step. Max reasoned she must have night vision. She turned on a flashlight, illuminating a tin-roofed bungalow over a cinderblock lower story. Max insisted on climbing the stairs un-aided, a small victory. Heard her telling someone inside to go sleep with her sisters, a teenage voice raised in protest, melodic voice cutting that short. She brought Max a bucket, a threadbare towel, and a bottled water.

“You clean up, Mista Eaglehart,” she told him. “WC out back.”

“Yes, Ma’am. You can call me Max, y’know.”

“Hmmm. I tink about it.” She went back in the house.

After a pit and face wash, Max followed the veranda to the back, used an outhouse backed up against the hill and ambled back to enjoy the stars, hearing scraps of conversation between melodic voice and children. A baby cried briefly. She came out and gestured him to come inside. By an oil lantern’s muted illumination, Max could see bright colors on the walls, simple hand-built chairs and table. A long bench on the veranda and a twin bed in a tiny room painted green and purple were the only other furniture. Max assumed the other rooms had beds. Pictures of Rap and Rocksteady artists were tacked crookedly to the walls, girl detritus littered the tiny room. His hostess put the lantern on a lone wooden box that served as clothes storage and tided up, stripping the bed, putting on fresh sheets with the speed of someone who kept houses for a livelihood. Max leaned against a purple wall and watched. She had the hips and bosom of a fertility figure but her waist curved inwards, her features were strong and even. He thought of Holly, Frank’s mother, chased the thought away.

The statuesque woman left, Max stripped his shirt off, she returned through the orange curtain covering the door. Handing him another bottled water she put out her other hand for his shirt.

“I wash. Put outside curtain.”

“Thanks very much, Ma’am. Wish you’d tell me your name.”

“Hmmm.” She took his shirt. “You dressing like him.”

“Who?”

“Mista Frank Eagleheart. He your boy, no?”

Bingo. Max kept his features still through long practice. “Guess, so, Ma’am.”

She slipped through the curtain, leaving him the lantern. Max heard her light another one. He pushed jeans, socks, and jockeys under the curtain. Did his best not to fall on the bed. It complained under his weight but didn’t collapse. Shoving knife and money belt under the pillow, Max blew out the lantern and lay back. The sheets smelled of fresh air and homemade soap. Heaven.

The Big Fire

The big fireBig Tomato grumbled up Highway 29 and turned left on Summercrest Avenue. On Dysart’s left was an estate pool for the tract. He turned again, and stopped. A tall narrow figure darted from the shadows. Dysart noticed the girl was limping, but she sprang into the truck like a deer. He used the turn-around on the block-long street and got back on 29. In the dash lights he glanced at Toné picking oak leaves from her hair. Leaving Georgetown, he passed under the toll road. Damned if he was going to take that. He’d get to Highway 95 somewhere around Granger, it’d just take a bit longer. Wasn’t like there was traffic. When he glanced again, he saw her cheek was shiny.

“There’s Kleenex under th’ seat,” he suggested over the throb of the diesel.

She dabbed at her face, Dysart saw the tissues darken with blood.

Good Lord. The poor girl had been in real trouble. “Needa doc?”

“N-no. Um…I think I’m OK. I sorta fell off the garage…”

“Wat?”

“Um…like I had to climb out the bathroom window…he had the alarm on and I didn’t know the code.”

Dysart just shook his big round head. His chins joined in.

“Dy,” she said, “can you please not tell anybody?”

He nodded, making his chins wag vertically. “Sure thang, Miz Wilson.”

When they finally turned onto 88, Toné was asleep, curled against the door. Hearing a siren over the rumble of Big Tomato and the thready wail of country music, he slowed, there wasn’t enough shoulder to pull off. A Madison County fire truck yowled by. Dysart got going, then had to pull right over a second time for Kenny Restin, Rockne county’s EMT. The square yellow ambulance fled into the night, a block of cornbread with a roller bar on it.

“Aw, hell,” he muttered, glancing over at his passenger. None of the fuss had stirred her. Dysart decided to head for Industrial and check on the garage, when another fire truck flew by him and took the business loop. He followed into town. Now he could see the fire was a few blocks off the square on Spruce. Flames gestured over the roofs of the little houses. As Dysart rolled past Doc Wollmer’s wedding-cake Victorian, he saw lights coming on up and down the street, people peeking out their front doors.

He knew before he got there it was Bono’s house. Wanting to say something, Dysart discovered his voice wasn’t working, his breath was strangling in his chest. His left arm felt like one of those blood-pressure tourniquets was over-inflating all around it. His jaw hurt. The squeezing pressure ramped up, encircling his expansive chest. Dysart watched twinkling sparkling strobing colors of light slice up the dark outside his windshield, thinking if he ever got another custom paint job they could make it look like these linear fireworks. Big Tomato hit something solid but small, the impact threw Toné under the dash. Immediately, all the lights washed together, fractal bits of color everywhere. Dysart didn’t even want to steer, it was so beautiful, but he did depress the brake pedal. Big Tomato shuddered to a stop.

Toné got her second rude awakening of the day. Stunned, she hit her head under the glove box before she figured out where she was. “Dy!” she cried, wriggling out from under. He just sat, big round head canted forward, resting on accordion folds of flesh, his mass wedged between the steering wheel and the seat, jiggling to the vibration of the idling diesel. Outside, she saw a house engulfed in liquid sheets of flame, fire trucks, hoses, several large firemen rushing up to Big Tomato to wrench the door open.

Tumbling out, she yelled, “There’s something wrong with Dy…oh please, help!” Water splashed down on her head as though from a small waterfall. Confused, she looked back, saw a fire hydrant lying a few yards from a geyser, it’s flaccid hoses snaking away into a confusion of shouting men and fire trucks.

The Fighter

boxing ring

 

Ring lights can pierce your brain like a shrimp on a skewer, they’re so bright. The screaming crowd can achieve the same effect, stabbing right through your ear canals. You can’t see them, but you can feel the sound waves vibrating on your skin like ripples in a sonic lake. Then there is the person across the ring trying to tenderize you with her fists. Maybe fracture an orbital socket, nose, or rib if she gets lucky. Above all that, you’re supposed to know the outcome of the fight before you put a toe in the ring.

Sheena Macintyre, professional tag “SheMac,” knew the ring at Marklees like she’d been born there. She knew how elastic the ropes were, where the seams were in the canvas. She knew the ring dimensions in shuffles or sidesteps with her eyes closed, because by the end of a fight they might be. She knew the taste of a mouth guard; the taste of her own blood, the smell of it, too. What Sheena didn’t know was her opponent or the outcome of the fight. She just didn’t know. She couldn’t tell. And that was bad.

At first glance, the woman appeared low-key, head down, skin almost as dark as her black satin robe. Robed in gold, Sheena’s blond braids and blue-green eyes emphasized the contrast. She skipped around, threw a few punches, listened to a crowd that normally would give their left nuts to see her bleeding on the mat. Now they screamed for her to pulverize the shorter female across the ring shrugging from her robe without any fanfare. Sheena was hard put to read her: no angry lesbian stuff, no black pride, nothing. But when her eyes met Sheena’s, the first blow was struck. Those carbon eyes had one message: “I’m gonna wipe the mat with your ass.”

The bout became a “waltz test”—they danced, Sheena’s longer reach netting her nothing. Soon her eyes would sizzle like eggs on a grill; she’d go deaf. Getting a bead on the elusive black torso before her was like trying to play tennis in a hurricane on a boat. Counterpunching, Sheena couldn’t find her range. She couldn’t tell if her opponent had. The woman slid sideways like her feet were on rails, her head weaved hypnotically. Sheena’s smoking left hook parted nothing but air, so did the right uppercut meant to provide the real punishment. Delivering a stuttering flurry of jabs, Sheena closed in, leaning left, threw her best right hook. Her elusive quarry leaned further left, and the lights went out. The sound went out. Just erased, like the crowd’s screams, the brilliance torn in half, a last flash then nothing.

Sheena came to in a wobbling jolting box, siren slicing her brain, tried to talk over the chatter. Pain drove a fork into her face, she passed out again. Next waking moment was preceded by a chemical scent that jerked Sheena into another too-bright place, this time, a tiny dark-skinned man with very large eyes was talking; “Miz Meekintira?”

“Murrgh?” Sheena hummed from a dry throat. Who the hell was he talking about? She couldn’t open her mouth.

“You have fracture jaw. Concussion. You stay overnight. Check tomorrow.” He disappeared like a genie in a cartoon. Sheena just lay there in a drugged stupor watching the white ceiling squirm around. After a while she noted three things; her arms, chest, and legs were strapped down, she had to pee, and there was nobody there even though it was noisy. Nothing changed. Sheena forgot what she had to do. It was something important, though. Instead, she wet  herself and passed out again.

The Hideout

the shack in AL b&w

 

“End a’ th’ line,” Deputy Abel Randall said curtly stopping the cruiser on the steepest grade yet. He popped the trunk, unlocked the back doors from his armrest.

Rain pattered on the roof, but it was over eighty. The women couldn’t see anything but trees. Toné put an athletic shoe down, it sunk to her ankle then scooted, causing her to grab the cruiser’s door pillar to keep from falling as mud sucked it off. “Ooh! My…shoe…Brandy Sue, don’t get out yet.”

Abel just sat. He could’ve been a wood carving.

Wrestling her unrecognizable footwear free coated Toné’s legs and tee shirt with viscous red mud. They slithered and slipped around the rear of the cruiser, hanging on to it. Rain turned mud into itchy blood-colored streaks on Brandy Sue’s legs.

Behind the raised trunk, Toné whispered to her friend, “Is he just gonna leave us here?”

“I dunno.”

Toné almost burned her ankle on the tailpipe when Abel hit the lights, turning everything red. She peered over the cruiser’s roof, being tall enough, and saw a crooked shack in the glare of the headlights and a spotlight. “Oh, mercy,” she muttered.

Shouldering their heavy duffles, they inched their way back up, gradient working with mud to impede much forward progress.

Toné, on the cruiser’s left side, hooked her fingers in the driver’s window. “Sir…ummm…are you going…” If she let go she’d slide back to Florida.

Looking down at something Toné couldn’t see, Abel said, “Back latah. Tomarra, prob’ly.”

Taking a deep breath, Toné scrambled, slid onto all fours, determined to reach the shack. The helpful lights shrunk, the cruiser’s engine grew quieter as it backed out of the slanted clearing. Brandy Sue had scrambled to the tree line and was working her way from pine to pine. Without the cruiser’s lights the shack was merely a lopsided shadow.

Toné made it to stairs that creaked ominously from her weight. “Watch out, girlfriend, there’s rusty nails,” she made it onto a porch. “Wait, getting a flashlight.” Frank had insisted she practice getting a hold of one of three ultrabright led flashlights in her bag in the dark. Operating her pistol in the dark. Changing mags. Toné thanked him silently as Brandy Sue’s flashlight wavered up a patchwork wall without window, a padlocked door that looked like it had been dragged through the constricting bands of pines.

“Ah don’t see a power line,” Brandy Sue said.

Over the whisper of rain, bumping sounded from inside. “I don’t like this.” Toné put her hand to the rusty padlock, the hasp fell off on her foot, rusty screws bounced and caught in the seams of the porch’s warped planking. “Oww!” She didn’t know how her Smith got in her hand, with her flashlight over it. Eyes gleamed near the floor, scents of fetid mold with and undertone of sewage wafted out. The raccoon had something that looked like a mangled one of Abel’s beef stix in its tiny hands. Securing its prize with a fringe of teeth, it scurried into the malodorous shadows. Toné heard Brandy Sue throwing up. She swept the space with her light. It had a single bed, a table, a chair, a shelf over a rust stained country sink. The pedestal of a toilet extended below a tattered curtain in one corner. Cobwebs shifted. Rain dripped on the floor in half a dozen places.

“Must be power, or water lines, there’s plumbing. If we could find some buckets…”

“Oh, Toné,” Brandy Sue moaned. “This place is jus’ awful.”

“I know.” Rummaging beneath the sink, Toné held up a kerosene lantern and a bottle hand-labeled “K-ro-cene”.

“Ah know how to use that,” Brandy Sue said, taking the lantern.

Toné eyed a pot-bellied stove in the opposite corner from the sink. “There was some split logs on the porch. Let’s fire it up.”

Brandy Sue found a child’s pair of yellow rubber boots, one wrapped around the arch with duct tape. Shaking them out, she said, “Do you think they got scorpions in Alabama?” Shining her flashlight inside, she shook them again. “Thank you Jesus, they fit. Ah’ll go look for more wood.”

“You doing better, now?”

“Yas.”

“Where’s your rifle?”

With a nod, Brandy Sue opened her duffle. In half a minute she’d assembled a Ruger 10/22 Takedown, and strapped on night vision goggles which made her look like a redneck hunting elf.

“Mercy! You’ve been…ah…practicing.”

“Yas. Gonna go look for more wood. An’ buckets, an’ anything else.”

Toné found a bottle of vinegar, a tin teakettle. When Brandy Sue reappeared with two buckets on one arm, she had water collecting in three pots, the skillet and the teakettle. The stove only smoked a little, Toné opened a door next to the smelly commode to create a cross-draft. “I got hand sanitizer, but we better go easy on it.”

“…and Max’s special tee-pee…” they said together.

“If I never see another square of that…” Toné lamented.

“Ah think we lucky to have it an’ you should see wat Ah found, but your shoes…”

Toné sighed. “Toast.” She’d rainwashed her feet and put them into smart wool socks and hiking boots. Her tennies were getting rained on outside. Maybe if it rained hard enough…

“You really need rubbers.”

“We’re like pioneer women.” They high-fived.

“OK, what do you want me to see, ‘cuz we shouldn’t go together, you need to dry out and watch the stove.”

“Wear your pistol an’ go roun’ th’ back. There’s stone steps leading up, but…” Brandy Sue reached into her pack, took out a handheld VHF Motorola radio. “Ralphie tol’ me it works up to mebbe a mile.” She handed Toné another radio. “Okay, say sumpthin’…”

Toné looked at hers, pushed a button at the top. “Er…something…whoah…” Her radio squealed like a stuck pig.

“Maybe you gotta go outside?”

Toné did. “Testing one…two…”

“Ah hear you great!”

Toné came back in, holstered up, clipped three mags and the radio to her belt, put two  flashlights on lanyards.

“Be careful.”

“You bet, girlfriend.” Toné carefully negotiated slanting stairs off the uphill side of the porch. Daylight was vanishing, there were so many pines, it was like being a flea on a hairbrush. A chain stretched between two of them. Shining her flashlight on the ground revealed two ruts without fresh tread tracks. Jagged stone steps gleamed wetly on the uphill side. She stepped over the chain to see it was attached to two mossy concrete pillars.

“I’m going up the stairs now,” Toné said. They were steep and slippery. Amazingly, her feet were still dry. She knocked some of the gluey red mud off her boots, intersecting double ruts three times, clearing a slight ridge. Going down took more concentration. A chain sided the stairs, she pulled on latex gloves to hold on and descended past three more switchbacks. Her light caught logs. Windows. A wraparound porch. A real cabin. “Umm…Brandy…Sue…can you hear me?”

“Sorta.”

“I found a cabin.” And a barn. And two other outbuildings. The porch was wide, wooden rocking chairs were tipped against split log walls. All the windows had heavy shutters held fast with wooden catches. The front door was massive with tiny high up bottle-bottom glass inserts. She tried a shutter, it was fastened solid with hinges on the inside. As twilight fell, she walked around the porch, a sturdy barn, what looked like a workshop with barred windows. She checked over doors, under the steps. On a nudge, she checked a carport. It had a metal box with a combination mounted on a support post. “It’s all locked up,” Toné told Brandy Sue. “I don’t know if we’re even supposed to be here.”

“Ah think we’ll git sick stayin’ in this nasty ol’ shack,” Brandy Sue objected.

“There’s this lock box with a four number combination…I so wish Frank was here, he’s too good at getting into…stuff that’s locked up.”

“Wasn’t Deputy Randall wearing a badge with a number on it?”

“Yeah…umm…oh…thirty-six!”

“Add anotha oh.”

The box opened after some judicious jiggling. It had one key. By the time Toné had tried every lock, and found more keys tucked away in a tool box in the workshop, she’d also found a switch for outdoor floodlights and they worked! Telling Brandy Sue, she took all her keys to the cabin’s front door, and opened it. The lights worked. While slightly musty, the cabin’s Spartan furnishings looked like heaven…lights, two wooden davenports with plaid cushions, a Franklin stove, a fireplace, a kitchen with a combo wood burning and propane stove, a big sink, fans on the ceiling (they worked). One wall had twenty feet of bookshelves with books. The refrigerator was propped open and unplugged, but the pantry was stocked with cans of beanie-weenies, cut green beans, peaches, tuna, even Boston brown bread. Two bedrooms were downstairs, two were in a loft. The bathroom had a claw-foot tub with a shower above, a sign on the toilet explaining how to start the well pump in the workshop. Toné got the propane turned on, too, checked the hot water heater, and radioed Brandy Sue. After dousing the coals in the shack’s potbellied stove with collected rainwater, they slogged along the switchbacked road, their duffles feeling like they were filled with plutonium.

They took turns preparing food and showering and elected to only have a fire in the efficient Franklin stove. Picking bedrooms, they hung up their clothes. The canned food tasted salty, but filling. Satiated, they stretched their feet toward the warmth, listening to rain on the tin roof and fire crackling.

“If you’re little red riding hood, what does that make me?” Toné asked her friend.

Worried, Brandy Sue said, “This is sure a real forest. Think there’s bears?”

“I barred the doors. We sleep with our guns.”

“All a twenny-two’s gonna do is make ‘em mad.”

“Hope Abel doesn’t get mad ‘cuz we’re here. Think he wanted us in the shack?”

“Ah hope not, Ah ain’t goin’ back there. The beds ain’t made…Ah’m too tired…”

Toné had never heard Brandy Sue say she was too anything to do something before. Giving her a hug, she said, “I’ll bring blankets and pillows, let’s sleep in here.”

 

Abel could move quietly when he wanted. Nothing creaked, no one built things as solid as that cabin anymore. Wood smoke tinged the air. A few sunbeams stabbed through gaps in the shutters. Deep in exhausted sleep wearing clean clothes, the tall black girl had a semi-auto pistol, radio, and flashlight laying by her hip, the little blond, a .22 rifle. Maybe they were dreaming about their men. The dishes were washed, their duffles were stowed out of sight, they’d kicked their blankets on the floor. No booze had been drunk, no cigarettes smoked, the blond had a tattered bible by her, the black girl, a dog-eared copy of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain.

Abel soft-footed out, made three trips with grocery bags so as not to disturb the angels. There was no law against looking at them, thank the Lord. They were beautiful, with a kind of resonance like a soothing radio station with violins. Eleanor had it once, then she spent her goodness on users.

He recalled a voice from three days ago;

“What do you want, Randall?” The clipped tones spelled someone in a command position.

Simple question. Wasn’t simple to answer, though. “Whaddayew want?”

“Absolute safe house.”

Hearing the cold note of suggestion, he knew he was being bribed and threatened all at once. “Fer who?”

“Two young women…witnesses. Married, no records. You’ve met them.”

“Hide ‘em from who?”

“Everybody. For as long as it takes.”

“Want th’ family lan’ back. An’ th’ cabin onnit.”

“Done. It’ll be in escrow until this is over. Expenses are covered.”

So they’d discovered his price and how isolated the cabin was. “One mo’ thang.”

Pondi and the Tiger

Pondi's Tiger .2

Pondi sat at the white kitchen table, forehead propped on one little hand. She wasn’t going to be scared about anything, but she had to think. Sheena had gone over this with her again and again. Pondi had hated every moment, but you didn’t argue when Sheena’s eyes got that flat look like they were painted on. Not with someone that was a yard taller and probably ten years older, though neither of them was sure of their exact ages.

Sitting across the table from Pondi was a stuffed white tiger. Its button eyes looked everywhere and nowhere, just like a dead person’s. She’d seen the eyes on dead people, too. When people who thought they were adults talked to Pondi like she was a baby, it made her really mad. She wanted to tell them she was old. Max had said so. He really looked old, his hair was silver, like the silly tiger’s. He’d also said Sheena was older in years, and sometimes Pondi would have to do what she said. This was one of those times. Sheena hadn’t come back to the apartment, and the rent was due.

Sheena’s low voice sounded in Pondi’s memory. “Pay it on time. Always. You’ll have to do something else after three months, that’s all there is. Use the cash for food.”

Pondi growled at the tiger, wishing it would grow ten times its size and growl back. Buried within its stuffing was an envelope with cashier’s checks and thirty twenty-dollar bills. She had to deliver a cashier’s check to Mister Perez in the office and he was a major perv. Sheena had warned her to pay when others were there and get out fast. If she had a real tiger on a leash, he’d just have to behave, like people did around Sheena. Sheena was taller than almost everybody except for Max.

Max was wider, but she’d seen him hurt and sick. Stuff like that didn’t happen to Sheena. Pondi put her hands over her ears, trying to stop the memory-soundtrack of Sheena saying; “I fight for money, Pondi. Fighters get hurt. I’m not smart like you, I can’t even read. You face up and don’t give me anymore shit. I don’t come back, you’re on your own.”

Pondi breathed and thought about breathing. Sheena had taught her that. If you let fear fill your brain with noise you couldn’t get anything right. And if Pondi didn’t get everything right, they would get her, and she’d die before she let that happen again.

The Haunting of Firewood Texas

ghost in the backyard

Excerpt from Book III: Trouble at Langtree Bakery

After laboring over an email to his brother in Afghanistan, Ken decided that, if writing wasn’t such a chore, he could write a book or a blog or something. He’d thought nothing could be crazier than being a uniform cop in the Montrose area of Houston. Enter Firewood, Texas. Ralph Chollett’s fiancée, Brandy Sue Bingham and Maria Gonzales were running the bakery. No one in town had seen the owner, Sybil Langtree since the invasion robbery, though it was whispered she was out of county with family. Since Langtrees were one of the origanal Anglo families to receive local land grants, this evoked a hurricane of whispering. The Sheriff was doing Mt. Rushmore. His new house had a for sale sign in the yard. Even Deputy Banyon gave the Sheriff a wide berth. The atmosphere around the jail had driven the deputies to the Koffee Klatch to write their reports and make phone calls. And now, apperently, Firewood Texas had a ghost.

Mavis radioed Ken at dusk. Corporal Launch and Deputy Chowolski were breaking up a fight at Poke’s Pool Hall. Post ankle injury, Ken noticed Mavis was sending others to respond to fight and domestic calls. Ken had driven to Madison to get brown trail-hikers to go with his uniform. He felt pretty ready. He only limped when he had to stand a lot. When a couple “I wanna talk to that good lookin’ deppity” calls came in, Mavis informed the tipsy aficionadas that a fake 911 call was a Class C misdemeanor and the Sheriff would press charges. They could explain their deputy idolizing to to Judge Clara Ransom. Judge Ransom even scared Ken—his presence in her courtroom caused her Honor’s thin lips to tighten as though she was visualizing which tree to hang him from.

But a ghost in Firewood? Driving one of the rebuilt department pick-ups, Ken turned down Oak Street. Sadly, it wasn’t as nice as the totaled unit. No supercharger. Rock-hard upholstery. A heater fan that sounded like a blow dryer. It reeked of stale smoke. After knocking on the door of a tiny ranch house, Ken was admitted and informed by Missus Fairbach that she’d observed said apparition over her back fence. Turning down an offer of Dr. Pepper and cookies, Ken followed Missus Fairbach and her three Yorkies outside to revisit the scene of the sighting. The last blue of dusk drained from the sky. Her fence looked like a bad set of teeth, the yard on the other side, like something from “The Secret Garden.” Between the twisting branches of two huge trees, Ken could see a wide roofline above the overgrowth.

“Whose house is that, Ma’am?”

She said reluctantly, “Nobody live theah. Hasn’t f’years.”

Ken moved on to the central topic. He could get the address and deed holder’s name easily enough. “OK, Missus Fairbach, where did you see…ah…it?”

“Rat over there.” She pointed with a pudgy finger to the left.

“And what did it do?”

“It disappear, deppity. Like ghosts do. It weren’t gonna chit-chat over mah fence, f’sure. I ask mah neighbor, Mother Layton, but she din’t see nuthin’.”

By the end of his tour at three am, Ken felt pretty good about having cited three speeders and getting a DUI locked up. And there were no escaped livestock calls for a change. The only downside getting ordered to do his reports at the old school desk in the reception area. Half of Ken almost fit. Deputy Banyon sent him a smirk as he strode in to start his tour. Ken hunched his broad shoulders and glared at his laptop.

Mavis called from the dispatch area. “Deppity, Sheriff wants ya in his office. Rat now.”

“Jesuchristo! H-he’s still here?”

“Most always,” Mavis said to his back as Ken legged it down the short narrow hallway past the restrooms and the deputy’s locker room.

Didn’t the man ever sleep? Ken knocked on pebbled glass and opened the door.

“Sit down, Tovar.” The Sheriff stared at his computer screen. “This ghost. Did Missus Fairbach describe it?”

“Ah…well…”

“Large? Small? Did it make any noise? Float into the air?”

“Sh-she didn’t say, sir.”

The Sheriff’s voice lowered. “Did you ask?”

“Well…ah…nossir.” Ken found himself staring at the wide man across the desk. What the heck was going on? Was he also supposed to be on paranormal patrol? Targeted by the Sheriff’s tombstone gaze, Ken felt his face heating up.

“I want complete reports. Not Cliff Notes. Next time, get some information.”

“Sheriff?”

“What?”

Ken took a deep breath. “Sir, how do you know there’s gonna be a next time? And who’s Mister Notes?”

The Sheriff closed his eyes as though in pain. “Look up what ghosts do, Tovar. And go home.”