Yellow Mama Archives II

John J. Dillon

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Acuff, Gale
Ahern, Edward
Allen, R. A.
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Andes, Tom
Arnold, Sandra
Aronoff, Mikki
Ayers, Tony
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Baker, J. D.
Balaz, Joe
Barker, Adelaide
Barker, Tom
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Barry, Tina
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Blakey, James
Burke, Wayne F.
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Campbell, J. J.
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Carrabis, Joseph
Centorbi, David Calogero
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Davis, Michael D.
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De Neve, M. A.
Dillon, John J.
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Dorman, Roy
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Doyle, John
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Hicks, Darryl
Hivner, Christopher
Hoerner, Keith
Hohmann, Kurt
Holt, M. J.
Holtzman, Bernice
Hopson, Kevin
Hubbs, Damon
Irwin, Daniel S.
Jabaut, Mark
Jermin, Wayne
Jeschonek, Robert
Johns. Roger
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Karl, Frank S.
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Kennedy, Cecilia
Keshigian, Michael
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Koperwas, Tom
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Lucas, Gregory E.
Luer, Ken
Lukas, Anthony
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Mannone, John C.
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Mladinic, Peter
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Nielsen, Judith
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Owen, Deidre J.
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Parker, Becky
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Radcliffe, Paul
Reddick, Niles M.
Reutter, G. Emil
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Williams, E. E.
Williams, K. A.
Wilsky, Jim
Wiseman-Rose, Sophia
Woods, Jonathan
Young, Mark
Zackel, Fred
Zelvin, Elizabeth
Zeigler, Martin
Zimmerman, Thomas
Zumpe, Lee Clark

The Biggest Fans

by

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.  Forever.

 

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 knuckles ached.        

#

          Viktor 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 blank.  

 

          Fry and Matz sat across the table, eyes glaring in hi-def.  In a corner stood Mr. Blaine, stress disfiguring his face. 

    

          "You've 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?"

 

          Fry ran 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."

 

          Viktor almost 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. 

 

          "I had too much to drink.  Some wimp gave me the finger and I lost it.  Sorry."

          Matz leaned 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."

 

          Viktor marveled 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."

 

          "I can see that."  Mr. Blaine shook his head, peeled himself from the wall, and left the room. 

 

          Matz flinched when the door slammed.  "Wonderful.  How to make friends."

 

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."

 

          Fry looked 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."

 

#

 

          Viktor gunned 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 it.

 

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 it. 

 

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 it, leave."

 

 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 camp shovel. 

 

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 trio." 

 

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 the dirt.    

 

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 demanded answers.

 

"I…"

 

"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, making room. 

 

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 clumsy. 

 

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 the metalheads.

 

                                                #

 

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 somewhat bland, and peaceful walks around the rolling green grounds twice a day. 

 

Practically everything. 

 

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.

 

END





The Perks

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.”

          “This would make a killer series,” Vann said. “Guaranteed.”

          “Feed 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.

          “There 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 student.”

          “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.”

          Vann’s 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.”

          Vann’s 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?”

          “A 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?”

          “At 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?”

          “Sort 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.”

          “How 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?”

          “I’m 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.    

          Reid 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.

          Indeed, 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.

          Vann, however, had been right about one thing.

          Yes, there were monsters out there.

          But oh, how Reid loved the perks.

John 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.



Twist Ending

 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.

          Last 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.

          Night 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.

          Burke 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 was Nirvana.

          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 with it.

          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 important message.”

          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.”

          Dooley 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.”

          “Does he happen to drive a dented white SUV too?”

          Dooley 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?”

          A 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?”

          Dooley hesitated, fidgeted, a little less blood in his lined face. “Ah, I don’t think I’ve heard of any Ranzino.”

          “You 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.”

          “My 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.”

          “A 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.”

          “Do 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.”

          Dooley’s 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.”

          “We can?”

          “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.”

          “I 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.

          Facing 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 door.

          On the counter a can pierced by a random fragment dripped maple syrup over the edge, onto the back of his head.

          Burke waited, gun ready, until certain Dooley was finished with his escape plan as well as everything else on his calendar.

          He 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...

“Ms. 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 news.”

          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.

          Ms. 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.”

          “You’ve succeeded,” Ms. Weaver said. “You know I’m here twice a week.  I absolutely adore your creations. You’re an artist.”

          “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.”

          “I use only the finest local maple syrup.”

          “I can tell. I’ve never tasted maple twists like them. But they have a special flavor. Almost mysterious. I can’t quite place it.”

          He leaned forward with mock intimacy. “Don’t say anything, but that’s a touch of beef jerky I bake into the dough.”

          “Genius,” 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 special.”

          “Tell me. Your secret’s safe!”

          “I scatter crushed nuts all over the twists,” Burke said. “Mercilessly.”                                     

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