By Bobby Mathews
I’m one of the lucky ones. I come outta St. Clair
Correctional with my life and most of my teeth. I oughta be grateful. Five
years, straight up, armed robbery and assault on an unarmed person. Lots of
guys go into St. Clair, and not all of us come out upright and breathing. But
you try getting a job with a record like mine. Can’t be done. Not in this town.
So, I went into business for myself. You won’t find me on
Yelp, and if somebody ever leaves me a Google review, I’ll hunt him down and
make him eat it. But if you know where to look, you can find me. I don’t have a
set rate. I go from job to job, and so far it’s worked out pretty good.
What I do, I fix things.
“I don’t quite understand how this works,” Melissa Talley
said to me. She was pretty, a former high school cheerleader gone to seed. I
was wearing my best shirt, a blue Oxford button-down—sixteen bucks at Wal-Mart—and
a pair of clean and creased khaki pants. We were drinking overpriced coffee at
Octane, a hipster-friendly coffee house in the flossy Uptown entertainment
district just north of Interstate 20. The urban planners probably called it the
heart of Birmingham. That’s how you get restaurants nearby that sell “elevated
pub grub” (at elevated prices, natch). I didn’t mind that the stuff was
expensive. I wasn’t the one paying. I took a sip from the white china mug and
grimaced at the dark brown liquid. Bitter and over-roasted.
That could be the title of my memoir.
“Think of me as your personal handyman,” I told her. “You
got a broken window, some frame damage. So, you find a guy who knows what he’s
doing to come and fix it. That’s me.”
Melissa smiled at me, dipping her chin in what I’m sure she
thought was a sexy way and said, “So you know what you’re doing?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “And what I don’t know, I figure out
as I go along.”
Melissa drank some of her coffee. She didn’t seem to mind
the taste. Maybe it was just me. Around us, the din of the coffee house
clattered and banged away. It was a busy scene, but the movement and the noise
was why we’d settled on it when she reached out to me. Big echoing spaces like
this, with a lot of people around, make it very hard to listen in on a
“I need something a little more complex than fixing a
window,” she said, and took an oversized brown leather purse from beside her on
the floor, reached in and brought out a small white envelope. I smiled. The
only thing better could be a large envelope.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t do windows.”
“I have twenty-five hundred here,” she said. “Is that
I raised my eyebrows.
“It depends on the job.”
She slid the envelope of cash toward me and I closed a
calloused palm over it, ready to make the cash disappear.
When she spoke again, her voice was harsh with fear and
need, and her face looked trapped, somewhere between hopeful and panicked.
“I want you to kill my husband.”
The coffee house was a wide-open space, with high ceilings
and concrete floors stained brown on purpose so that you can’t tell if
anything’s been spilled. There were other people around us, all in their own
conversations, but I swear that everything around me stopped for just a minute.
I’m not one of the good guys, and I’ve never even claimed
to be. But neither am I a moron. I shoved the envelope back across the table,
mournfully watching it skitter away like a cockroach when the lights come on.
She looked down at the money and back up at me. Her eyes were wide.
“Not interested,” I said, and got up to leave. It was early
January, and I could walk a couple of blocks down to the Museum of Art. There
was an exhibit I wanted to see. I put on my navy pea coat and a Birmingham
Barons baseball cap to guard against the cold January air outside. The coat had
fit me before I went to prison. Now it hung on me with room enough to fit
another person inside.
“Good discussion,” I said, and walked away. I left her
there at the table, openmouthed and sputtering, like a fish that’s just been
hauled from deep water onto an open deck.
Twenty-five hundred dollars to kill her husband. I tried
not to be insulted. Maybe she didn’t have much money. But her coat had been
good quality, and that was a Hermès scarf she was wearing. Her nails had been
lacquered and her hair professionally done. Her teeth were so white and even
that recent and ongoing dentistry were the only explanations. A woman like
that’s gonna offer me two-and-a-half to kill her husband?
I do work for hire. But I don’t come cheap.
I went south and west, heading for the museum. Police
headquarters was about a block away, and the snarl of a major highway
interchange was not too distant to the east. Heavy equipment groaned and
snorted in the distance where they were elevating and replacing major sections
of the interstate. Traffic in Birmingham may not be as bad as Atlanta or
Nashville, but the city’s got ambitions.
Melissa Talley rushed to catch up with me. Her breath
puffed white in the chilly air and she gasped.
“Wait,” she said, the words half-whispered and urgent.
“Please, I need help. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
We were the only people on the street. This town ain’t much
“Fine,” I said. “If you can keep up, you can tell me all
about it.” Abruptly, I changed directions and headed more directly south toward
Linn Park. I didn’t hurry, but I didn’t wait around, either. She scurried after
me and was soon matching me step for step, as much as her short legs could.
“Why won’t you help me?”
Over to the east, the red rusted hump of the Sloss Furnaces
water tank loomed over the city like something out of War of the Worlds. I
could just barely see it, but every time I did, it kind of reoriented me in the
city. I took a hard, cold breath, shoved my hands deep into the pockets of my
pea coat, and stopped in front of the woman.
“You’re cheap.” I said. “And I can tell by your clothes and
your purse and your face that you don’t have to be. You go making that offer,
and the next guy you approach is gonna be a cop.”
Melissa Talley’s smile was bitter.
“So what,” she said. “Jail would be better.”
Most of the time, that’s bullshit. I’ve been to jail, and I
could write a scholarly paper on the million little ways that it’s bad, how
every hour inside kills your soul just a little more. But Melissa was serious.
And here in the natural light, I could see her more clearly. Underneath her
makeup, her cheeks were lightly pockmarked. When I’d first seen her in the
coffee shop, I’d chalked those scars up to chicken pox or a bad case of teenage
acne. But out here where there wasn’t soft and glowing light to help hide the
damage, I could see more clearly.
The scars had tiny, square edges. And there were dozens of
them, sprinkled from her hairline all the way down to her chin.
“He hits you,” I said. She didn’t speak, instead settling
for a small solemn nod. We walked together then, and I slowed my pace to match
hers. Our breath hung around our heads like we were smoking the world’s coldest
“Not every day,” she said. “But it started early.”
I didn’t need the details—they were written all over her
face—but she told me anyway. And then she did something that I wished she
hadn’t: Melissa Talley reached into her mouth and with a terrible slurping
sound pulled out a complete set of false teeth. Uppers and lowers. They sat in
her palm, gleaming in the thin winter sunlight.
I turned away.
“Put them back in,” I said, and tried not to listen as she
“You think I’ve got money,” she said after a moment. “But
Frank is the one with the cash. We’ve got nice cars—a Bentley and a
Mercedes—and a big house out in Mountain Brook. But I don’t have anything.”
“He controls everything. It took me nearly two years to
scrape up this much. Meantime, that sonofabitch drops that much on a new set of
There was a park bench just ahead, and when we reached it,
I sat down and motioned for her to join me. Linn Park was pretty, a small green
square in a city caught up in growth and gentrification. I wondered how long it
would stay the same in a place where everything changed almost daily.
“All right,” I said. “Give me the envelope.”
She passed it over, and I pocketed it. The money felt
heavier than it should.
“Tell me everything.”
That’s how I found myself hanging around outside the Marble
Ring, a real by-God speakeasy in the Avondale neighborhood a few nights later.
Frank Talley was there on the second floor balcony, smoking a long cigar and
flirting with his waitress. I’d been to the Ring before, sat at the horseshoe-shaped
bar and admired the chrome-plated bathtub in the middle of the big room. The
ceiling was stamped tin, and the bartenders wore white shirts, dark waistcoats,
and bow ties.
Roaring twenties, baby.
I could go up there right now. But Frank was having a nice
time, maybe his last good time. So instead I went down 41st street to Taco
Morro Loco and got a couple of al pastor tacos and a Mexican Coke to go. On my
way back to the speak, I stopped at a convenience store and bought a pint
bottle of Sneaky Pete.
I ate the tacos and drank the Coke, ignoring the bottle in
the brown paper bag next to me. Above, Frank Talley had smoked down most of his
cigar. I could see the cherry-red end as he drew deeply on it. When he threw
the cigar butt down and sparks scattered against the sidewalk below, I reached
into the bag and unscrewed the cap on the bottle.
I swished a little Sneaky Pete around in my mouth and spit
it out, then poured some into my palm like aftershave and patted it on the
front of my gray tee shirt and faded jeans. I hadn’t shaved in a couple of
days, and my jeans and shirt were ripped. I was wearing a quilted black hoodie
over the shirt, and I grabbed a couple handfuls of gritty dirt from the gutter and
wiped it over my shirt and pants, then did the same with my face.
By the time Frank Talley came out, I looked like any other
bum on the street. Frank was tall, taller than me, and thin as a whippet. He
had a gold wedding ring on one hand, and on the other hand he wore a square,
sharp-looking pinky ring that glinted silver in the dim streetlight.
I stumbled toward him with my half-empty bottle of port and
took a swig.
“Howaya doin’ champ, take a drink with me.”
Talley muttered “Excuse me,” and tried to go around, but I
swayed toward him and leaned forward as if I was about to fall. As I flailed, I
tossed the bottle into the bushes that lined the sidewalk. He tried to push me
away, but I got an ankle in front of him and tripped him. He hit the sidewalk
hard on his knees, tearing the fabric of his Armani suit. Oops.
“Hol’ on, hol’ on,” I slurred, stepping on his hand with a
heavy steel-toed boot. Something snapped, and Frank howled in pain, yanking his
“Shorry, shorry,” I said, “lemme he’p you up.” While he was
gripping his hand and flinching from the pain, I got hold of his collar with
one hand and his belt with the other, straining hard to keep him from
straightening all the way up, and ran four long steps, ramming him headfirst
into the brick wall of the speakeasy.
Frank was down on his hands and knees now, blood streaming
from his broken lips and busted nose and pooling on the sidewalk. His hair had
fallen into his face and it was greasy with sweat. So I tangled my fingers in
his locks and dragged him halfway around the building into the alley where the
speak kept its dumpster. He was trying to make a comeback now, flailing his
arms at me, and I put a stop to that with a quick knee to his chest.
The wind whooshed out of Frank Talley, and he groaned and
folded up like a camp chair. I went back around to the front of the speak,
found the bottle of port—now empty—and returned to Frank. He was bloody all
over the front of his face, and his nice suit was torn in several places.
“How you doing?” I said, squatting in front of him. Frank
didn’t say anything. I’m not sure he could. The one eye that wasn’t closed
rolled around and looked at me with no comprehension.
I broke the bottle against the ground and picked up the
biggest piece by the neck. As I lifted it, Frank shied away. He still didn’t
“I could take your eyes,” I said. “I could cut your
He closed his eyes and his lips moved without sound. He may
have been praying.
“The next time anybody close to you shows up with a scar,
with a bruise, with even a goddamned pimple, I’m going to be there,” I said, my
voice low and menacing. “I will be the last thing you see. Do we understand one
Frank whimpered and tried to move himself into a more
comfortable position. I thumped him on the nose with my free hand. “Do we
understand each other, Frank?”
He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the
dumpster. After a long moment, he nodded.
Three weeks later, Frank hit her again. This time when I
saw her, the scar on her cheek was fresh and garnet red with dried blood, and
her eyes were puffy from crying.
“I told you it wouldn’t work,” she said. I nodded and
brushed past her into the house. We had to talk, and I had work to do.
Melissa filed a police report, and applied for a
restraining order. Two days later, she went missing. She still hasn’t been
found, and Frank is a ‘person of interest’ in her disappearance. The cops that
I know aren’t saying anything, but they’re obviously proceeding as though she’s
been murdered. They’ve got a witness, a guy who sometimes does them favors, who
said he’d seen Frank moving a 50-gallon drum from his garage into the back of
his wife’s Mercedes SUV. They also have canceled checks from Frank, made out to
cash, totaling a little more than eighty thousand dollars.
Nobody knows where the woman or the car—or the money—went.
The cops’ best guess is that Frank killed Melissa, and then
hired someone to hide or dispose of her body. I’m sure Frank had a hell of a
time trying to explain where all that money went.
It took some time, but the news crews finally left the
Talley’s home in Mountain Brook. The cops stopped coming around every couple of
hours. So here I am. It’s a nice place, three stories done in Danish Modern
except for Frank’s office, which looks like it came straight out of the Sharper
Image catalog. I have his confession right here in front of me, and I’ve read
it nearly a dozen times to make sure there’s nothing missing. It’s even got his
signature—a scrawl that is lethally easy to copy, let me tell you—and today’s
Melissa didn’t want to go, didn’t want to leave her
friends, her family. She didn’t want a new identity. But I told her that’s the
way it has to be. I spent a lot of Frank’s money setting her up with a new
birth certificate, a new history, driver’s license, the whole deck.
And if she can keep her head down, it’ll all be okay.
She’ll be happy in Flagstaff or Sedona, wherever she ends up, far away from
Birmingham. Maybe she can start again. Maybe she’ll be able to look at herself
in the mirror and not see the damage that a wrong man did to her. And in the
back of her mind, she knows that if she comes back … well, let’s just say that
the warranty runs out on this little job I did for her.
Frank’s due back home in an hour or so. I can wait. After
half a decade behind bars, waiting is one of my best things. When he gets here,
Frank and I are gonna have a discussion. I expect it to be short and to the
point. And when I’m done, the cops aren’t gonna be able to find Frank, either.
I called in some help to get rid of Frank’s body. I spent
time in one of the ugliest, worst prisons in the country. I met all kinds of
people with all kinds of skills. Right now there’s a Ford Econoline van parked
down the street, and the guys in it are very, very good at making things go
When I fix things, they stay fixed.
Bobby Mathews is a writer based in Birmingham, Alabama. His checkered past
as a journalist, investigator, PR flack, bartender, and roustabout often finds
its way into his fiction. His short stories have been published in All Due
Respect, Bristol Noir, Close to the Bone, The Dark City,
The Sandy River Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Shotgun Honey.
His novel, Magic City Blues, will be published in February 2022
by Close to the Bone. This is his first story for Yellow Mama.
Sean O’Keefe is an
artist and writer living in Roselle Park, NJ. Sean attended Syracuse University
where he earned his BFA in Illustration. After graduation, Sean moved to New
York City where he spent time working in restaurants and galleries while
pursuing various artistic opportunities. After the birth of his children, Sean
and family move to Roselle Park in 2015. He actively participates in
exhibitions and art fairs around New Jersey, and is continuing to develop
his voice as a writer. His work can be found online at www.justseanart.com and @justseanart on Instagram.