The Biggest Fans
John J. Dillon
God, he loved speed metal, the overdrive, high gain, fuzzed
up guitar solos and chugging power chords.
Even after years of crappo gigs and dismal paydays, he couldn’t imagine
anything better, from corporate soft rock to unfathomable jazz, robotic classical
to—worst of all—pop piano. Nothing else
mattered. It had to be speed, speed, the
faster, the louder, the crunchier the better.
Viktor shouted a lyric and hit another screeching high E up
at fret twelve, blasting the distorted hundred-watt note from his amplifier at
the headbangers. He held onto the soaring
sustain, then slid into a chunky progression as Fry and Matz, bass and drums, thundered
like a jackhammer duet. A chickenfeed roadhouse,
Blaine's Wreck Room at least offered a pumped audience craving rampage-grade thrash.
They'd paid their cash to see the Steel
Rulers and wanted their faces blown off.
Viktor unleashed his lightning.
Two more squalling songs into the set, he looked out over the
bobbing heads and flying arms, spotted Trask at the far rear wall. Bathed in
eerie gray light, he was sweeping his
arms sideways left and right, as if playing an invisible keyboard. With a gnarlacious
rush Viktor felt his
fingers thicken, threatening his command of the fretboard. He shot a freaked
glance over at Fry and Matz
strutting around hurling their own barrage of sound. They were oblivious that
Trask was out there stalking
the Rulers from concert to concert, emanating brain havoc like an evil radio beacon.
How many times had Trask appeared? A defensive
compulsion welled up demanding Viktor
end this assault before his talent and career were dead. Demolished by Trask,
back from the dirt.
He had to
attack now, or Trask would escape again and return another night. Viktor unstrapped
his guitar and stepped off
the stage, tanking the song and leaving Fry and Matz to fend for themselves. He'd
deal with them later. The hall was suddenly full of shouts and
boos. Viktor shoved his way through the moshers
to the wall where he managed to catch Trask, bring him down, and beat until his
shifted in the hard chair as he regained awareness. He didn’t know how
he'd gotten here, the tiny
baloney-pink room behind the stage. His
shoulders, neck, and arms throbbed and the floor seemed slightly tilted. He
remembered shrieking people pulling him
off Trask, who'd broken free and scrambled away in the chaos. Then he'd gone
Fry and Matz
sat across the table, eyes glaring in hi-def.
In a corner stood Mr. Blaine, stress disfiguring his face.
blown your seals this time," Matz was saying, shaking an oversized head
populated with pins and studs. "You
can't melt down onstage and attack members of the paying public. Do I even have
to say this?"
fingers tipped with obsidian black nail polish through his obsidian black
hair. "What sort of road dope are
you into, anyway? You seem… spaced.
More than usual."
laughed. Spaced. Yes, that was
it. How he wanted to reveal what he'd been going
through, seeing Trask these past weeks. Trask,
the ex-fourth member of the Rulers.
Trask, the buried one.
too much to drink. Some wimp gave me the
finger and I lost it. Sorry."
forward. "We had to beg Mr. Blaine to
pay off the kid you clobbered. That
means we get nothing for tonight. And this
might not even be the last of it. There were
a lot of witnesses."
at how Trask had managed to break away and flee the Wreck, leaving some brainless
doper in his place. "So shoot
me. I said I was sorry."
see that." Mr. Blaine shook his
head, peeled himself from the wall, and left the room.
when the door slammed.
"Wonderful. How to make
Viktor resented how they were treating him like some third-string
member of the Rulers instead of the exalted lead guitarist. In their arrogance,
they couldn't even
conceive that his priceless talent was in jeopardy and he was fighting for his
life. "It was just a simple bar
fight in an east Texas redneck club. Not
exactly Albert Hall. No one's going to complain.
You ask me, it'll probably add to our badass reputation."
at Matz, stood up. "Viktor, you
either get a grip on yourself, end the ultra-fists, or we'll find another
shredder. There are plenty around. We
survived after Trask split, we can survive
without you, too. You know the music
biz: here today, gone later this
afternoon." He smiled with a weird,
asymmetrical contraction of the muscles around his mouth. "One more chance."
his sputtering old ATV into the bayou's thick forest as far as the scaly brown yaupon
trees and soft soil allowed. He parked
and left the vehicle behind, began his hike into the marshy interior of the
remote forgotten property two hours outside Beaumont, near the Louisiana border. As
he climbed over a sagging barbed wire
fence and trudged into the woods, he continued to analyze the threat as he saw
Trask, alive? Viktor
had done a lot of research and didn't necessarily believe in ghosts, as his
rational mind told him that a living Trask, no matter how far-fetched, was the best
explanation. Or was it? Hadn't
Trask once mentioned a long-lost
brother? Maybe this brother was a
twin. Theoretically, that could explain "Trask's"
appearances. He had to consider it.
But why would this theoretical brother torture Viktor—and
with an air piano? It was past Pluto impossible
that he, or anyone, could know that Viktor had killed Trask a year ago. Or that
a piano had anything to do with
He needed to pull this mystery apart and solve it.
The most logical answer was that Trask had actually
survived their fight, dragged himself free from the grave, then spent months
recuperating and planning his revenge. He'd
seen things like that happen in beaucoup awesome movies, so he knew it was
possible. What he needed was to start at
the beginning, at the gravesite. To see with
his own eyes, first and foremost, if Trask had managed to unbury himself.
An hour along the faint path through the woods, he came to the
unnamed hidden creek he'd often visited over the years. He turned north along
the mushy narrow bank, watching
his steps, pushing branches, heading for his secret fishing spot. The foliage
had thickened since the last time
he'd been here, alone with Trask, on a break from touring for a private relaxing
day of catfish, tequila, and chemicals. The
path was a little different now, compliments of the flooding common in this
region. But a half-mile on, the yellowish
rock still jutted inches above the ground cover.
He knelt to the stone, brushed away moss and dirt, found
the X he'd scratched with his knife a year ago.
Viktor crossed himself. Seeing it
brought back what had once existed between Trask and him, their plans and
hopes, and he felt a minor jab of sadness.
Despite their fight, Trask had been a fellow musician, deserved more
than a raw pit in the ground. So, Viktor
had marked his passing, one artist to another, the decent thing to do.
"We need to add a piano to the band," Trask had
declared, once fortified. "Face
it. Speed metal's over. The Rulers
need to adapt, get out of this dead-end
swamp circuit. A guitar, bass, drums, with
me on piano instead of rhythm guitar."
The very thought was a painful loud-hailer blaring inside
Viktor's head. A piano? The instrument
forced down his throat as a
kid, day after day, by his wannabe concert pianist parents. The unmasterable
instrument that had sent him
fleeing to the spectacular alternate universe of simple three-chord thrash,
distortion, volume. The instrument that could
never in this eon mix with metal. A piano.
And Trask had even crazier Dutch uncle ideas: "I'm
the musical genius in this band,"
he'd boasted. "I should be the
leader, not you. I'll get Fry and Matz
to vote with me. We'll rename ourselves
and head to LA with a more commercial sound.
I have contacts. You don't like
Viktor felt his
nerves catch fire with rage. Abandon the
band for which he'd suffered years of bloody fingertips, sleepless nights,
screaming dreams of suffocating crowds?
The resulting explosive brawl hadn't gone well for Trask.
He'd been no match for Viktor's fists—and his
At first, Viktor had been panicked by the inert body at his
feet and the trouble he'd faced. But later
that afternoon, as he'd sobered up while putting Trask into the ground, he'd worked
out a plan to handle Fry and Matz: "I
don't know where Trask's gone. Maybe to
La La Land. Forget him. We've
got a gig to do and we'll do it as a power
No one had known they'd been fishing together, and no one ever
wondered too hard about the sudden disappearance of yet another whacky loner
itinerant metal-rocker for greener pastures.
Three paces from the rock, Viktor plunged his shovel into
It was difficult labor.
He chopped his way down, ripping vines, scooping heavy, soggy clots only
to have the sludge run back into the hole, refilling it halfway. Viktor bore
down, digging deeper. He lost himself in the effort, unaware of dripping
sweat or muggy air.
Soon, the shovel tapped a solid object.
Viktor probed with the point of the blade, worked it around
carefully, alarmed that there was something down there. He straightened, drank
from his canteen, grappling. A rock?
A tree root? He hadn't expected
this. He'd been sure.
He gripped the shovel and leaned in, leveraged up until a human
skull emerged with a sucking sound from the soupy brown water. Staring, could
feel the air clawing in and
out of his lungs, tried to grasp what this—
There was something else down there too, sloshing.
Bright red flashed in wavelets, churning
creatures breaking the surface.
Viktor forced himself to retreat. Crawfish.
Hundreds, splashing, swarming on and about the remains, picking, tearing,
nesting in their muck—
"What the hell are you doing on my property?" a
voice behind him bellowed.
Viktor spun to confront a tall, bearded man dressed in hip
waders and overalls. He held a big white
plastic bucket in one hand and a long pole net in the other. Muscles bulged
from his arms and his furious eyes
"Did you hear me?
You poaching my crawfish? Are you
a poacher?" The cloddish man
stomped closer, craned his neck, gaped into the hole.
"I'm not stealing," Viktor said, knowing it was
too late, words weren't going to help. The
muscular bearded man's eyes were as big as beanbags, fixed on the skull.
The man dropped the bucket and crawfish gushed out onto the
ground, escaping frantically in all directions, around Viktor's ankles and into
the hole. "That's… human," he
said. “You killed someone!"
"I swear, I had nothing—"
But the man had already pulled a cell phone from his pocket
and was tapping.
Viktor had only a second to decide, act, prevent.
There was no time to weigh the right course
of action, the smart thing to do. Instead,
he lunged, shovel swinging. The sharp blade
opened a serious neck gash, sending the man to the ground. Viktor swung again
and landed with a ringing blow
that left him very still.
He stood over the body for a long time, listening to the
stream, feeling the heat of the day, watching the crawfish scuttle, twitch, and
probe, until he was sure the bearded guy would never move again.
Eventually Viktor saw no choice but to dig. Heaving
into the job, he enlarged the grave,
By sundown Viktor had smashed and scattered the man's phone
and was racing in his bucking ATV back to his pickup truck parked miles away.
Someone might one day find the double grave, but it would
be a long way down the road with nothing to link him to it.
The hicks would scratch their heads forever.
The Caveman's Club was halfway between Houston and Lufkin, yet
the Steel Rulers played as if it were some metal Mecca on the LA strip. Viktor
bent the notes to roaring highs, Fry's
bass boomed in counterpoint, Matz's drums were louder than the king's cannons defending
the castle. The bangers jerked to the sound
blowing off the stage. They'd paid their
money to get their brains cauterized. Viktor
was happy to oblige with a ripping torrent of speed metal.
Howling into the set, Viktor saw Trask at the back of the
hall in hazy gray clothes, hands palms-down and floating back and forth in the
air, as if over a piano. Viktor
struggled to keep his fingers moving across the guitar neck but his notes were already
Trask was still alive, right here in front of him, tracking,
torturing, trying to drive him schitzi. But
this time Viktor had a better grip, had figured out the whole picture. Trask
had dragged himself from his grave a
year ago, spent months convalescing, then killed someone else and buried him
there. Just in case Viktor came back,
searching. It was all an elaborate
setup. Trask was the murderer, not
Viktor. It was as obvious as the surface
of the sun.
From the shadows another figure appeared and joined Trask,
a tall, bearded guy in overalls carrying a big white bucket. While Trask worked
his piano, the man flipped
the bucket upside down and began to beat the bottom in time to the music.
So, the goon was alive too, in partnership with Trask.
Viktor cursed himself for not making
absolutely sure he was dead. Now he was unearthed
too, and they were ganging up on him. But
Viktor stayed cool, because it didn't matter.
He wasn't afraid. The truth made
him strong. They didn't know who they
were dealing with, his determination to protect what he owned.
He felt his fingers returning to normal. This
time, it'd be different. He'd end it.
He looked over at Fry and Matz, gave them a leader's nod, then shrugged off
his guitar, hopped down to the floor, and with iron in his fists shouldered through
Before long Viktor got used to the home, more or less.
At least that's what the others in the group,
and the heavies in white shoes, called it.
The home. So Viktor decided to
just go with the flow. But secretly he'd
come to the conclusion that despite the serene, drowsy days and long, deeply groggy
nights, it wasn't really a home in the normal meaning of the word. It was someplace
else, a place where they
didn’t want you to leave, where they kept track of your movements, where things
were very regimented and well-guarded.
But why let it bother him?
Really, when it came right down to it, he had practically everything he
wanted. He had friends. He had
classic television and movies that
never got stale no matter how many times they ran. He had decent food, though
and peaceful walks around the rolling green grounds twice a day.
Sometimes, though, he craved a thrash metal guitar at a jet
engine volume. Something loud and
piercing enough to crack granite. He
could feel his fingers squirming, as if they were little animals with primitive
hungers of their own.
He'd asked once, very nicely, if that could be arranged, and
the heavy in white shoes had offered up something more tranquil and balanced,
something that wasn't so extreme, so aggressive. Something soothing that the
whole group could
sing along with.
Could Viktor play piano?
So each Saturday night Viktor clenched his jaws until he
saw red, red sparkles, but played the house piano anyway, living for the brief
chance to slip an interesting off-scale note or semblance of a power chord into
the oatmeal of old showtunes and schmaltzy lullabies the shoes permitted him.
It wasn't much, but it would have to do, until the crawfish
came scratching at his bedroom door.
They were, after all, his biggest fans.
by John J. Dillon
“It’s Sigma’s fault Ernie Holbeck ended up dead,” the guy
named Norris Vann was saying. “Spoiled fratboys took the hazing way too far. Now
everyone’s got to pay for the cover-up, university, fraternity, parents, even the
Ridgeburg town cops. There are monsters out there, Mr. Reid. I want them nailed.”
Reid had never set eyes on Vann before he’d walked into his one-room office-studio
tucked away behind Donnie’s Computer Repair Shop. Walk-ins seldom panned out, but
Reid didn’t have the luxury to ignore. A source was a source. “Crimetalk’s
always looking for good true crime material,” he said. “But just to be clear,
most stories never make it to the podcast.”
would make a killer series,” Vann said. “Guaranteed.”
me some details. We’ll go from there.”
Vann stretched his thick neck slowly from side to side, leaned forward in the groaning
office chair and gripped the edge of the old desk. Someday, Reid hoped, he’d have
a new high-tech studio, leather furniture, and more. One of the big streaming services
would pick up Crimetalk, allowing him to quit sales at the Skeggs Ford dealership and make
a good living off the show. True crime was always hot, as long as you had quality. You
just had to stick with it, he told himself every damn day.
were six of us Sigma bros: Ernie Holbeck, me, the ringleader Mel Cross, and three others—Wesley,
Sean, Kaiser. I assume you know something about Sigma Nu?”
“I’m familiar with the, ah, illustrious institution,” Reid said.
“Brandonworth University’s big cheese fraternity, owns the four-story mansion
up on Hangman’s Hill. Run by fratboys from rich alumni families who’ve built
half the buildings on campus and pumped millions into the university endowment. Porches
and BMWs in the underground garage, endless parties, girls, 24/7 gourmet cooks, Mediterranean
cruises at breaks, great employment contacts. Way out of my league back when I was a journalism
“That’s the picture. Enough money to fund a moon landing.”
“You sound like a disillusioned rich kid.”
“Not even close,” Vann scoffed. “I got into Sigma three years
ago because every so often they stoop to admit a local star from some upstate Mayberry.
Usually it’s a high school sports hero so they have a trophy pledge to show how fair-minded
they are. I was all-state wrestling. They offered me a small scholarship, free room and
board, and everything else that went along with it. But from day one I hated trying to
fit into the pampered rich-kid set.”
“I see,” Reid said. “No offense, but let me get it straight. You
didn’t hate it enough to leave.”
face tightened and he shook his head. “I know what you’re saying. Definitely,
it was my effing mistake to stay. I should’ve gotten a job and worked my way through
college. But it was the perks, Mr. Reid. I got addicted to the bloody perks. Parties, girls,
flash, mansion, grades. They bought me off with the perks just like they’ve bought
off everyone else at Brandonworth. I got sucked into the corruption.”
“That’s the problem with corruption,” Reid said. “It sucks.
You’ve only got one year to graduation. What made you decide to break the spell?”
“Prime thing is that I draw the line when a bunch of entitled zillionaires
gets someone killed then blames the victim. That’s what’s happened right in
front of me. I can’t see living another day with that stink on my hands. You must
know how big donor money rules this cesspool of a university. You’ve been digging
up stories in this part of the state for what, seven years?”
“I started Crimetalk right after graduation eight years ago. So yeah, I know
there’s more than rolling mountains and pretty waterfalls around here. But you’re
making a very heavyweight accusation. Unfortunately, moral outrage isn’t enough to
base a series on. I need a solid story I can prove.”
Vann looked around at the scattered equipment and stained ceiling tiles. “I’ll
bet,” he said, “over those eight years you’ve seen a lot of your Brandonworth
classmates move away to juicy careers in the city. You must dream of it too. Don’t
worry, Mr. Reid, you’ll get a solid story. I’ve got the goods on them. And it’ll
also put Crimetalk on the map.”
Reid stared at Vann, assessing, then sat forward. “Okay...” he said.
“You’ve got my radar up. I didn’t think much about this Holbeck incident
at the time.” He flipped open his laptop, typed in a search, read the results. “I
figured it was just a bad accident, as reported. No mention of hazing.” Reid looked
up. “Tell me what really happened.”
fingers met his temples with a deep, circular motion. To Reid, his eyes were the washed-out
red you get from too little sleep and too many nightmares. “What really happened
was that we planned it all out in advance,” he said. “We were going to initiate
Ernie into Sigma with a crazy dare, like they did with me years ago with a bungee jump
off a cliff. We took him to a part of Lake Eden that Sigma used for private parties. It
was night. We built a campfire, started with the usual freshman humiliation: honk like
a goose, strut like a Nazi, barf like a baboon. We got him stumbling drunk on vodka but
didn’t touch the booze ourselves. Then we gave him his task: swim out to a spot called
Fish Hook Sink where an old telephone pole sticks up out of the water. It’s been
used for years by the locals as a casting target. We lied to him that there was a bottle
of gold label Irish whisky sitting twenty feet down at the bottom of the pole. His trick
was to dive for the bottle and bring it back. He did that, we’d celebrate our new
Sigma bro. He was smashed senseless but the guys were hooting and taunting at the top of
their lungs for him to show his stuff—his ride was for swimming. We pointed headlights
on the water and goaded him, Mel even gave him a shove in. He began thrashing his way toward
the pole. Right from the start I was shocked at how clumsy he looked, what a terrible idea
this was. But everyone else was cheering him on. Somehow he made it to the pole and clung
there waving at us. Bros chanted ‘Make the dive, Aquaman!’ until the words
were pounding in my ears. Then he went under. A few minutes passed, no Ernie, we started
to panic. Mel and I jumped in and raced out to the pole. We were exhausted when we got
there, dove under, couldn’t see a thing, splashed around for ten minutes, still no
Ernie. Two other bros joined us. Eventually we gave up and fought our way back to
shore, barely able to drag ourselves out of the water. Nobody was cheering anymore.”
“Jesus,” Reid said. “You called the cops?”
Vann had to force the words. “Not right away. The bros were zeeked out beyond
purple, knew they were in deep crap. ‘We gotta cover our asses or we’re hosed.’
So they cooked up a story that Ernie had pulled a drunken stunt swim while we were busy
partying, we didn’t even know he was gone until we heard his yells from out on the
water near the pole. The rest of the story was the same, failed rescue, easy to remember.
But I was petrified at the thought of lying to the police. Worse, I was even more petrified
of telling the truth. What the hell did I have to cover myself? A single mom working second
shift at a QwikGo in Unadilla? The bros told me not to worry about a thing, their family
attorneys would take care of me, we were all in this together, all I had to do I was stick
with the bros, float along, everything would be fine. I finally caved, Mel called 911,
reported a drowning accident. Then the bros phoned their parents and got us lawyered up.
By dawn the lawyers and parents had driven upstate and were on the scene dirty dancing
with the cops and university officials. By noon everyone agreed it had been an accident
and the Sigma bros were even heroes for risking their lives to save Ernie.”
“What about Holbeck’s family?”
stroked-out father and a nurse’s aide mother living in a trailer outside a flyspeck
called Bleekerville. They had zero clout and swallowed everything the lawyers told them.
I’m sure it didn’t hurt when the fraternity released a fat bereavement payment
within twenty-four hours.”
“So far you’re in this up to your neck,” Reid said. “How
long before you started to change your mind?”
first I was able to keep it together, stayed quiet even after seeing Ernie’s body
hauled out of the water draped in slimy fish line. That was bad. The divers had to cut
him free down at the bottom where he’d entangled himself in old line and spoon lures
wrapped around the pole. I was in shock but managed to convince myself nothing was going
to help Ernie and that I should just keep my mouth shut and move on. But the way the frat
bros acted started eating at me. Behind the scenes they were high-fiving each other, blaming
Ernie for getting himself drowned, planning for the next party. Two weeks after the funeral
it was back to business as usual up on Hangman’s Hill. It was sickening. I felt disconnected
from the guys and sensed they were starting to watch me.”
“Have you talked to anyone outside Sigma?”
of. The paranoia and guilt were too much, so I contacted the police a month ago and said
I wanted to discuss my original statement. Next thing I know, two very scary university
attorneys came to visit, took me for a ride, private talk only, told me how dead serious
the alumni parents were when it came to protecting their innocent kids’ good family
name. They implied that if I had any thoughts of slandering the wholesome fraternity sons,
I’d end up expelled from school, sued, and under investigation by local law. I could
kiss my comfy life goodbye. They left me shaking and knew it.”
“The cops squealed to the university.”
stupid could I possibly be? They’re all tied together in this dirty town, with the
university at the top. I was just a dumb, penniless, totally outgunned outsider with no
powerful friends or family. Someday maybe years from now, maybe tomorrow, if they ever
need to, they’ll throw me to the wolves. No question. For the rest of my life, I’ll
have to worry that I’m expendable. Somehow I had to protect myself. That’s
when I thought of Crimetalk, right in my backyard. I’ve listened to some of your
exposÚs, cheating grocery stores, bribe-taking hospital officials. Loved that one you did
about the crooked town council over in Mass. I figured you were worth a try. Death, corruption,
cover up, money, privilege. What’s not to like for a muckraker like you?”
Reid let a minute crawl by, hearing through the thin wall some customer out in Donnie’s
whine about a refund. “I’m drawn,” he said, “There’s definitely Crimetalk potential
here. I love the angle, one honest guy against the wealthy privileged university crowd.
But this isn’t going to be easy. Like you say, you’re alone against many. And
they’ve got to be suspicious of you. Any chance one of the frat bros—Sean,
Kaiser, even this Mel—will corroborate your story?”
“Forget it. Everyone’s feeding from the same trough.”
“We only need one person. But one step at a time. I have to piece together
a chart of everything that’s happened and everyone who’s involved so that an
audience can—and wants—to follow it. It’ll take weeks to vet and produce
this for a podcast series. I want to give this a shot, see what I can build, but it’s
a minefield. They’ll come after me as well as you if they learn we’re nosing
around. It could get dangerous.”
“I’m willing to do what’s needed, Mr. Reid.”
“What’s needed is to keep quiet and watch out. First thing, I want to
visit Lake Eden to see this Fish Hook Sink where you’re alleging it all happened.
Tomorrow morning. Are you ready for that?”
prepared,” Vann said, as solemn as a baritone monk at vespers. “I don’t want this
haunting me any longer.”
Reid drove through the Skeggs Ford dealership lot in his new red Ford Mountain Mover
Limited Edition 4x4 accessory-loaded pickup. The street beast handled like a dream and
felt like a sleek patrol boat with a thundering engine. It was massive, with surging power
wrapped up in a militarized frame and mother-crushing big tires. What a ride.
As he left the exit, he waved out the window at a beaming Mr. Skeggs watching him
from the curb. Despite having worked for four years in the used car department without
much recognition from the aloof Mr. Skeggs, Reid felt they’d now become good friends.
He turned a corner and headed west out of town, toward the postcard Catskill Mountains
and a bang-up weekend, also compliments of Mr. Skeggs. Resort hotel, high-class escort
from the city, radical dinners and bottles of local wine awaited.
Norris Vann hadn’t gotten it exactly right. Brandonworth University wasn’t
the top of the heap and neither were the alumni parents. The top was Reid’s boss
and owner of the Ford dealership, Tony “the Toenail” Skeggs. He ran this part
of the tri-state region with a steel grip for the community downstate, and Brandonworth
was under his protection umbrella. He told the university, along with everyone else
in Ridgeburg, when to pay and how much for his services. In return he made sure the town
and university were safe from the freelance parasites trolling for opportunities.
had finally found something for Mr. Skeggs that would lift him, Reid, from the crowd, give
him a chance to shine: there was a problem in their midst ready to wreck the whole ecosystem.
It was more, much more, than the minor confidential do-gooder whistleblowers he’d
offered up to Mr. Skeggs in the past. This time the problem was this big mouth college
kid Vann who probably wasn’t going to go away by himself. So why let it fester? He’d
given Mr. Skeggs a golden chance to fix this before it went public. Mr. Skeggs loved such
initiative from his employees, was known to reward it well.
Mr. Skeggs had appreciated so much the opportunity to disappear Vann that Reid was now
driving a new Ford LE pickup and had a bright future with the community. To hell with piddling
around with some podcast no one ever heard of.
however, had been right about one thing.
Yes, there were monsters out there.
But oh, how Reid loved the perks.
J. Dillon has
worked for many years in the computer software industry and his most
interesting job was at an atom smasher laboratory. Over the years he’s had
several publishing credits, one of his earliest being as co-author of a
hardcover spy thriller published by Cliffhanger Press, titled The Druze Document.
He lives in Dallas, Texas but loves snowboarding in Utah beyond all reason.
by John J. Dillon
Burke reached the edge of the clearing and peered
from the dark maple orchard at Dooley’s Sugar House. The April night was cool and
cloudless, a bomber’s moon emitting pale light on a landscape devoid of snow.
He could make out shadowy farm equipment around the yard—propane
cylinders, PVC piping, steel pails, carts, a mini-tractor. A flatbed truck was parked with
a big circular plastic tank mounted on the rear.
Dooley’s “House” was the
usual hovel-grade shack made of old lumber with a steep roof, concrete foundation, mist
drifting up from a metal chimney. In the gray lunar light it looked like the bughouse of
some fairy tale ogre. Not far from the truth, Burke knew.
week he’d driven over from his home base of Nortwich, hidden his car inside a
half-collapsed barn off a remote county road. Using a neck light to guide him,
he’d marched under darkness across posted land, navigating with a hiker’s GPS
to zero in on Dooley’s property from the south.
recon was a strength from his military years, and all he’d needed for this hit was
one easy casing trip to learn the cross-country approach through fields and woods.
Burke leaned against a maple tree and studied
the Sugar House. He saw no movement but eventually picked up distant twangy radio music.
Around him stainless steel buckets hung from tree trunks, collecting maple sap dripping
overnight for the morning harvest.
loved contracts that came with upfront discovery already in place. In this case
Ranzino’s group had done most of the preplanning, making Burke’s job a cinch. No
deep, tricky investigation was needed, just some light prep and setup, then, of
course, precise execution of Ranzino’s rather unique instructions.
“You make this
slimeball Dooley suffer for what he did to my own flesh and blood. Tell him what’s
coming and why. Freak the bastard out, hear? Take your time. Then blow his balls off.
I’ve got contacts in the coroner’s office, so I’ll know. Do it and you’ll
have a hellacious payday, Burke.”
As part-time careers went, working for Ranzino
Burke pushed away from the tree, and avoiding
scraggly branches, followed the perimeter of the clearing around to the front of the shack
where he assessed the entrance and covered porch. From this angle he could see the dented
white SUV parked on the other side of the building, and off in the black woods beyond,
two weak points of light—Dooley’s wreck of a trailer home.
He lurked for a while, calculating the safety factor, then decided
to move. He came back around the clearing and cut in toward the House, crossing the hard
ground of the driveway with soundless steps. He reached a window embedded in the shack’s
rough plank wall, inched sideways until he could peek through dirty glass.
The lanky Dooley sat in an overstuffed office
chair at the front counter, black pigtail hanging off the back of his head like a strip
of beef jerky. From a sleeveless denim jacket his long muscular arms stretched out onto
the rough wooden countertop, mallet-like fists meant for pounding guarding a whisky bottle.
Aside Dooley, taking up most of the room, was
a long homemade evaporator machine with temperature dials, hoses, and a steel trough mounted
over a low gas flame. Steamy white vapor rose into a large ventilation hood in the ceiling.
While Burke watched, Dooley raised the bottle, gulped, then turned and studied the gauges,
checking the progress of the boil. Stacked on the counter like building blocks were shiny
square metal cans stamped with red maple leaves. A whiteboard on the wall showed
scrawled prices for Grade A Golden, Amber, Dark, and Very Dark 100% Pure New
York State Maple Syrup.
This was ideal: Dooley alone.
Burke pulled from the window and crept along the wall to the
rear of the shack. He found the rickety door, locked as it’d been during his scouting
trip last week. Again he used two metal shivs to slide the bolt back. Hands in thin cotton
gloves, he unholstered from beneath his coat a heavy revolver loaded with frangible
polymer ammo, guaranteed to fragment on impact and take a lot of real estate
The cramped, ill-lit utility room was full of
boxes, tools, bulging garbage bags. Burke crossed and quietly swung open the interior door
until he saw the back of Dooley’s chair and the big evaporator to his left. Gun up,
he slipped into the main room, the music louder now, inhaled the thick, sweet atmosphere
of maple syrup cooking.
“Hello, Dooley,” Burke said.
Dooley jolted and spun around in the chair, bottle in hand.
“Hey ace, we’re closed—” he blurted, then his glassy eyes found
the big black hole pointed at him. His gaunt, unshaven face was not welcoming. “Who
the hell are you?” he said, voice low, taking a calm sip of his drink.
“Someone here to discuss your future.”
“Put that damn gun away, ace. I don’t have any money.”
“I’m not here for money. I need to deliver a very
Dooley sat back, considering. “What’s
that, ace? You want me to donate some Grade A to the state school’s lunch program?”
He laughed with a dry heave, then took another slow sip, eyes still glassy but now weirdly
focused and alert.
Given the situation, Burke found Dooley about
as funny as a styptic pencil. “Not quite,” he said “Let’s talk
about the girl you raped.”
remained composed, staring as if studying a simple leaky faucet. He wiped his chin
with his wrist and leaned forward. “Raped? What girl would that be, ace?”
“Her name was Lori. Ring a bell?”
“Naw... You’re probably looking for Kenny Pile,
runs a crap sugar house a few miles down the road from here. Never liked that ratbag. Sounds
like something he’d do.”
he happen to drive a dented white SUV too?”
tilted his head, but it wasn’t to listen to the music more closely. In fact he
didn’t seem to be listening to the music at all. “Well, I wouldn’t know for
sure. But lots of mooks around here drive dented SUVs, white, blue, black...”
“Does this ratbag also tend bar three nights a week at
a strip joint called Treats? Where Lori works?”
smile oozed across Dooley’s face. “You been spying on me,” he said. “But
you’re way off base. I told you I don’t know any Lori, ace. Put the cannon
away. I’m just an honest maple syrup farmer trying to earn a living.”
“Turns out Lori may have been working in a strip club
but she wasn’t some whore. She was a decent kid trying to get her life back on track
after a nasty breakup. The bad thing for you, she’s related to a very important person
around here. You’ve heard of Ranzino?”
hesitated, fidgeted, a little less blood in his lined face. “Ah, I don’t think
I’ve heard of any Ranzino.”
wouldn’t believe how angry he is.”
Dooley’s gaze diverted to the left, then came back, much more
serious now, as if he’d discovered an unfriendly asteroid whirling closer. “This
Ranzino thinks I raped some girl Lori? Tell him that I didn’t rape her or anyone
else, no way. They all come to me because they want me.”
“You cornered her in the alley behind Treats and dragged
her into your dented white SUV, Dooley. Ranzino wants you to know he knows what you did
and wants you to see your punishment coming.”
punishment,” Dooley said. “What would that be?”
“Knowing you’re going to die. Then dying. Kind of
like Lori knew she was going to get raped then getting raped. Only more painful. And final.”
Dooley didn’t seem fazed, but he wasn’t sipping
his whisky anymore. Instead, he set the bottle on the floor without moving much, a single
smooth motion with his arm, down and up. The boiling sap a few feet away made a dull hum.
The radio music faded into static. “Ace, you must be some kind of professional, right?
I’m telling you you’ve got the wrong person. This Lori, whoever she’s
related to, must be confused. So put the gun away, go home, check your facts. You’ve
made an honest mistake. Tell you what, I’ll do this Ranzino a favor. I’ll nose
around at Treats, see if I can find out who might’ve done this no-class deed to
this poor girl. I might be able to finger the real guilty guy.”
“I see. You’re innocent.”
“As a baby lamb.”
lamb. Right. Dooley, tell me something. Do you have peppermint air fresheners
inside your SUV?”
Dooley stared, mouth frozen half open, tongue
just visible. “So what if I do?” he said robotically. “Lots of people
have air fresheners in their cars.”
they also have fingernail scratches on their leather backseats?”
Dooley’s stare morphed into a gape. “Scratches?
I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
Burke noticed that Dooley’s right hand had moved down
again, slightly closer to the chair seat than it was a moment ago.
“So what’s it going to be?” Dooley said. “You
want me to find the real rapist?”
Burke took a step back, holding the
gun steady. “Ranzino’s already got the real rapist,” he said. “So
you can raise your hands and forget about the Hail Mary hunting knife you’ve got
tucked away up under the seat.”
hands shot up, started shaking like party decorations in the wind. His eyes
darted around, unable to find a home. “Hey, hey. Let’s both of us calm down,” he
said. “You can’t blame me for trying to protect myself. You’d do the same
thing with some dude pointing a gun at you. But that doesn’t mean I’m guilty.
We can still work this out between you and me.”
“Let’s say I do know this young
lady, Lori. Let’s say we had a misunderstanding, that’s all. No harm done.
I swear, she was coming on to me. Maybe I took it too far. But it was her fault as much
as mine. I don’t blame her and she can’t blame me. That makes us even, right?
I won’t let it happen again.”
agree with you on one thing,” Burke said. “You won’t be letting this
happen again. But I believe it’s time for you to meet Ranzino’s personal messengers.”
He cocked the hammer. “Are you ready for a bang-up intro?”
Dooley sagged back as if deflated, shaking his head, looked around the room, then
used the springy chair to launch himself up and out, lungs roaring, arms reaching,
fingers clawed. It was a suicide rush but Burke was already pulling the
trigger. The gun snorted twice and Dooley’s groin area exploded, disintegrating
ammo scattering bits of flesh and more up across his torso, red holes appearing
too, blowing him backward over the chair onto to the floor.
up, Dooley convulsed, arms thrashing, but with a screaming effort managed to pull
his upper body around into a surreal twist, onto his stomach, then began to drag
himself forward under the counter, dead legs behind.
He went still long before he reached the front
On the counter a can pierced by a random fragment
dripped maple syrup over the edge, onto the back of his head.
waited, gun ready, until certain Dooley was finished with his escape plan as
well as everything else on his calendar.
took from a zippered pocket a few small plastic bags of pills and tossed them
around the scene to help the local cops decide this was another backwoods drug
deal gone squeaky.
As he left the room Burke took one long, last
look around, then hit the kill switch on the evaporator. He didn’t want the House
catching fire and ruining all that good New York State maple syrup.
The hanging bell at the front door of Burke’s
Bakery jingled as a well-dressed woman with precision cut silver hair and a cheerful smile
entered. She carried a briefcase and stepped up to the glass display counter where she
eyed shelves of premium baked goods—old-fashioned cake donuts, apple fritters, jelly
rolls, bear claws...
Weaver,” Burke said from behind the counter. “How are you today?” He
wiped his hands on his white apron.
“Very well, Mr. Burke! Are you ready for some
good news?” Her smile grew broader.
“You know me, Ms. Weaver. I love good
She set the briefcase on the glass counter.
“I’m honored to inform you that the Nortwich town council voted to give Burke’s
Bakery our ‘Merchant of the Year’ award.”
“To me?” Burke said.
“Correct! You beat out The Hikey-Bikey Store and Massive
Hardware.” She leaned over the counter. “It was really no contest, you won
hands down. Everyone goes crazy over Burke’s donuts.”
“I’m truly humbled.”
Ms. Weaver opened the briefcase, took out a bright gold foil
sticker and a triangular chunk of glass. “Here’s your window sticker and award
plaque. Can I get a quick picture for our newsletter?” She raised her phone.
“Of course, of course,” Burke said, holding the
plaque to his lips and posing.
Weaver lined up the shot and snapped twice. “Perfect. Give me a quote.”
“I don’t know what to say, Ms. Weaver. I try hard
to make the best pastries I can for the town.”
succeeded,” Ms. Weaver said. “You know I’m here twice a week. I absolutely adore your creations. You’re an
“Thank you very much for your business.
Which is your favorite?”
“Hands down, right over there, the new
item.” She walked to the end of the glass counter. “These maple twists are
from heaven. Crispy dough covered with a sublime maple glaze and dotted with tart red currants.
I’m gaining weight just looking.”
use only the finest local maple syrup.”
can tell. I’ve never tasted maple twists like them. But they have a special
flavor. Almost mysterious. I can’t quite place it.”
leaned forward with mock intimacy. “Don’t say anything, but that’s a
touch of beef jerky I bake into the dough.”
Ms. Weaver said, shaking her head. “How did you ever come up with such a work
of gourmet art?”
Burke shrugged and smiled. “I guess I
just draw from life around me. And there’s something else that makes them even more
“Tell me. Your secret’s safe!”
“I scatter crushed nuts all over the twists,” Burke said.