Excerpt for Passport to Murder: Bouchercon Anthology 2017 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



PASSPORT TO MURDER

Bouchercon Anthology 2017


John McFetridge, Editor





Compilation Copyright © 2017 Bouchercon Committee, Inc.

Story Copyrights © 2017 by Individual Authors


All rights reserved. No part of the book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.


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The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.


Cover design by JT Lindroos



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TABLE OF CONTENTS


Passport to Murder

Introduction

John McFetridge


Part One:


The Divide

Janet Hutchings


Montezuma’s Revenge

Michael Bracken


Jerusalem Syndrome

Hilary Davidson


Clean Getaway

LD Masterson


Commute

Michael Dymmoch


The Penitent

Victoria Weisfeld


Pick-up and Delivery

Eric Beckstrom


Part Two:


This Ain’t No Time For a Vacation

Gary Phillips


Zona Romantica

Susan Calder


Life is Good

John Floyd


The Queen-Size Bed

Rosemary McCracken


The Oldest Old Country

John Stickney


Making Tracks

KM Rockwood


Part Three:


The Dead

Scott Loring Sanders


Here to Stay

Tanis Mallow


As Ye Sow

Craig Faustus Buck


Dirty Laundry

Marie Hannan-Mandel


The Last Train Out

Su Kopil


Part Four:


The Haunted Hotel

Chris Grabenstein


Journey into the Dark

Marilyn Kay


Burnt Orange

Shawn Reilly Simmons


Hidden

Karen Pullen


About the Contributors

Other Bouchercon Anthologies


Other Titles from Down & Out Books and its Imprints


Preview from The Black Kachina by Jack Getze

Preview from Dead Clown Blues by R. Daniel Lester

Preview from Bolt Action Remedy by J.J. Hensley





To Librarians,

who feed both the mind and the soul





INTRODUCTION

John McFetridge


Anything to declare?

Welcome to Toronto. Welcome to the Bouchercon 2017 anthology, Passport to Murder.

Our call for submissions asked that stories have “actual travel or the desire to travel with or without passports,” and “a strong suggestion of murder or a plan to commit murder,” and the writers delivered.

The guidelines also said, “All crime sub-genres welcome,” and that could also be a theme for the convention.

My first Bouchercon was in Madison, Wisconsin, 2006. I was very nervous about attending, mostly because I didn’t know anyone else who would be there, but also because of something that happened just a few weeks before the convention.

My first novel had just been published and I was at my first industry event. It was exciting but also intimidating. I got to chatting with another writer who asked me what genre I wrote in and I didn’t really know. So he said to me, “Who’s your guy?” I didn’t understand the question so he said, “The detective, the PI, the main character, who is he?” I said there wasn’t really a main character, it was more of an ensemble. “Okay,” the guy said, “who solves the murder?” I had to think about it for a minute and then I said, “Well, a few people get killed.” Now he was starting to get annoyed and he said, “But the main murder, the one that gets solved, who solves it?” Again I had to think about it and said, “No one. It doesn’t get solved.”

Now the guy was staring at me like I was crazy and I was starting to think maybe I was. I said, “There are a lot of cops and a lot of bad guys but it’s really a novel about opportunity and how some people see it everywhere and some people never recognize it and…” I realized he’d stopped listening and I couldn’t really blame him.

So, with that book and a lot of trepidation under my arm I showed up in Madison expecting to get the same reaction from everyone. I had been told before by agents and publishers (over twenty years of rejections, actually) that my books fell between the cracks; not literary enough to be literature, not gritty enough to be hardboiled, so that’s what I expected to hear at Bouchercon.

That’s not what I heard at all.

What I discovered within five minutes at my first Bouchercon was that it’s a place where people come together with a shared love of books—all books. I made friends at my first Bouchercon that I’m still friends with today and that’s happened at every Bouchercon since.

And I’ve discovered books I likely would never have found any other way. Some of my now favorite books. Many of them fall between the cracks and can’t be defined by genre.

Of course, if you want to it’s still possible to get into a heated discussion about genre and sub-genres at Bouchercon. In that case, this anthology will be able to help you in two ways; one, there are excellent examples of many genres, from cozy to noir, and, two, many stories cross genre and show why no labels really work.

A few years ago I took part in a Flash Fiction Challenge organized by Patricia Abbott, Gerald So and Aldo Calcagno (the Mystery Dawg), all people I met at Bouchercon. Patti described the challenge as:


Write the first paragraph of a story, send it to me by January 20th. I will stir the pot and send it back out to another writer. Write a 750 (or so) word story using it.


The paragraph I received mentioned a writer and that immediately made me think of Bouchercon. So, to begin this anthology that includes so many genres, here is that flash fiction.


Cozy/Noir

John McFetridge and Sandra Scoppettone


The first time George Heartwell e-mailed the writer, Margaret Roberts, on June 22nd, he suffered all morning. He re-read the letter over and over and wished to hell he hadn’t ever done such a stupid thing. Christ, what was she going to think?

Well, she was going to think she was being blackmailed, sure, but what would she think of the writing?

“There are cameras everywhere, Margaret, in phones, in pens, in computers—some even look like cameras. There was one on the eleventh floor of the Lord Baltimore Radisson at Bouchercon.”

He wanted it to be the fewest words possible, noir style, none of that purple prose like her cozies. Her bestselling-around-the-world cozies.

Now here it was almost winter and George was driving Highway 21, looking for the entrance to a closed provincial park for his meeting with Margaret. They’d gone back and forth for months, she’d answered his email with a simple, “What do you want?”

That surprised him, he’d expected a denial or some excuses, some convoluted story about it being a misunderstanding, how there was nothing going on really, but she got right to the point. Not very cozie-like at all.

She must’ve read his hardboiled flash fiction online.

Back then George’d wanted to get her help with agents and publishers but she pointed out their writing didn’t really have anything in common, people would suspect something was going on between them if she started showing his work around—her husband would find that suspicious for sure.

So he settled for money and Margaret asked him to meet her at the Ipperwash Provincial Park on Lake Huron. It had been closed since a group of Native protestors took it over, claiming it was on Native land—it probably was for all George knew—and Margaret and her husband lived in an old farmhouse somewhere nearby.

He’d expected more trouble getting into the park but he just drove in like Margaret told him in her email. Typical Canada, there was a sign that said, “Closed,” but no locked gate or anything. He drove a few miles through the woods until he came to the Park Store, the building boarded up and falling apart. The parking lot was surrounded by trees, the perfect location for a drop. Well, not perfect like it would have been in one of George’s books, some back alley all gritty and dark, or a massage parlor.

George parked and waited. He had a copy of Margaret’s latest book with him and he thumbed through it. The author photo was pretty good, she looked great for a woman a little over fifty and he liked the first page; a woman walking her dogs comes across a guy who committed suicide in his car, attached a vacuum hose to the exhaust pipe with tape and ran it through the trunk.

Everyone bought the suicide except the woman walking her dogs. George couldn’t believe these cozies, amateur sleuths, the woman was a professional dog walker and now she’s investigating a homicide. Who buys this crap?

He was well into the book when a dog barked and he almost had a heart attack.

There was Margaret Roberts, walking out of the woods behind two dogs, a big German Shepherd and some small fluffy thing. Maybe that photo wasn’t retouched, she looked good.

George got out of his car and said, hey. Margaret nodded at him, said, hello, as she was opening the black bag she had over her shoulder. It was the bag from Bouchercon, the Charmed to Death logo in white, the bracelet with the little charms, the skull, and the gun and the switchblade.

She took out a thermos and asked George if he’d like some tea. He said no and Margaret said, “How about a little Bushmills then?”

“Sure, why not.”

Margaret poured a little into the thermos lid and handed it to George. He drank and coughed a little and said, “Very good.” Then he said, “Do you have my money?”

“Get right to the point why don’t you?”

George drank the rest of the Bushmills and Margaret poured him some more, saying, “Don’t you think it’s beautiful out here?

George said, “I guess,” and Margaret said, “Not like one of your hardboiled stories, of course, but like a cozie.”

“Yeah.”

“I suppose people get blackmailed in hardboiled stories all the time?”

George said, yeah they do. He couldn’t believe this chick, hadn’t she ever read Hammet? Or even Robert B. Parker?

“People sometimes get blackmailed in cozies,” Margaret said. “But do you know what happens more often?” She was looking right at him now but going out of focus, saying, that’s right, “They get poisoned.”

George’s knees started to give way and he was falling over, his face hitting the gravel hard, but he was already numb.

He could see Margaret getting something out of the black Charmed to Death bag, a vacuum cleaner hose and a roll of tape.

She said, “Not everyone gets published, George, it’s no reason to kill yourself.”


Back to TOC




PART ONE





The Divide

Janet Hutchings


Her first sight of the girl was in the student union, where she was tacking a notice to the ride-share board.

Gabriella touched her shoulder.

“Where you go?” she said.

A little roll of baby fat formed between the girl’s jeans and top as she brought her arm down. “Vegas,” she said, surveying Gabriella doubtfully. “But…we’re students. Probably not what you’re looking for.”

When Gabriella said she’d be willing to take a donkey as long as it was headed west, she got an eye-roll instead of a laugh, but the girl tore a tab off her posting and scrawled an address where they’d meet Wednesday, nine sharp.

They were merging onto the interstate before Gabriella stopped looking back at the giant red-brown slabs of the Flatirons, jutting behind town like a theatrical backdrop. The sudden acceleration pressed her stomach into the back of her seat, shifting her attention to the van. The driver had black curly hair and a jagged, lightning-bolt earring. Beside him, the pixie-haired blonde reached into his shirt pocket.

Gabriella might have been a passenger on public transit for all the attention they paid her. She’d been assigned the middle seat, next to a cooler and a brown grocery bag. At first, she thought she was being cold-shouldered because of her age, but behind her, in the van’s last row of seats, a boy was sprawled, bobbing his head to the rhythmic tish that escaped his ear buds, and he, too, had received little more than a nod from the pair.

Snatches of conversation drifted in and out of the weave of her thoughts: a concert the driver, whose name was Darren, didn’t want to miss; hints that the girl, June, was counting on winning at the casinos.

Then the highway narrowed and Gabriella saw a sign cautioning a downhill grade. Again, she was pressed back as the driver took the opportunity to dodge ahead of slowing traffic.

Before she could stop herself she let out a small shriek.

“Ohmygod! We didn’t mean to scare you…! Watch it, Darren!” the girl said, turning around.

Gabriella felt the van slow and with it the pounding of her heart. “I no used to these mountain,” she said.

“So where you from?”

Gabriella had seen in the looks the couple exchanged earlier that the girl was more intrigued than worried by her. The girl had even tossed some extra camping equipment into the van on seeing Gabriella didn’t have any. But Darren found her unsettling.

Italia…Long-a time before you two are born. After thirty year in this country I decide I gonna make it to the other coast!”

The girl laughed. “Well, you don’t want to miss everything in between, do you?

“Hey, Darren,” she said, thumb going to her phone. “If we go along here a little farther we get to an exit for Independence Pass, and…cool…It’s only another hour from there to Aspen…We could stop—”

“No, no,” Gabriella said, catching a glimpse of Darren’s face.

“Quit worrying about your stupid concert, Dar,” the girl insisted. “We’ve got two days to get there…You never think of anyone else—”

“What I’m thinking is that those two signed up to get where we said we’re going!”

“Let’s ask them, then! Jason!” she shouted to the back of the van.

As the boy pulled the earbuds down around his neck and sat up, pushing wispy long hair back behind his ears, Gabriella thought it was like seeing a giant come to life in a fairy tale.

“Hey, Jason, we’re thinking about stopping in Aspen…where I’m going to buy dinner for everyone, case money’s an issue. That okay?”

When the big boy shrugged assent, the matter was settled. They climbed for more than an hour, past timberline, until the earth began to look like the top of a balding man’s head—little strands of low grassy shrubbery holding on here and there but mostly bare.

The switchback eventually opened to a place where there seemed to be no life at all except for patches of brownish green that hugged the earth as thin and tight as skin. Here the girl said, “I think we must be coming to the Continental Divide, Dar…Case you didn’t know, that’s the line where on one side all the water flows to the Pacific and on the other it all goes toward the Atlantic.” When he didn’t answer, she yanked gently at the back of his hair and pointed to a parking area ahead. “Let’s stop. It’s cool…Think about it. A raindrop that just happens to fall to the east of this point’s going to flow east—forever. Just a fraction of an inch the other direction, it can only go west…”

This time she got a mocking “Whoo-ooh,” followed by, “You want to try selling that to Hallmark, maybe you should also work in that once they evaporate they get a chance at a whole new life.”

“Yeah? Well, that’s what I wish I had right now, Darren. A whole new life!

They pulled into the lot and tumbled out of the van, quibbling as they drifted off on their own, leaving Gabriella to admire the panorama of snow-capped mountains and Jason to light up what Gabriella recognized, after two weeks in Colorado, as a joint.

She spotted a restroom and quickly headed for it, afraid they might leave without her.

The break didn’t help.

“Hey, you don’t like it,” Darren said, when they were back on the road, “you’re free to go.” He flicked the door locks up and slowed down.

Gabreilla’s heart quickened. If her husband had ever invited her to leave so coolly, it might not have taken her three decades to do it. But this hard little bud of a woman seemed to have no illusions at all. Her reaction was to calmly reach out and give his earring a vicious ping, making the metal dance.

It must have stung, Gabriella thought, and she held her breath. The canyons were so deep here, she felt that even her weight leaning one way or the other could tip them over.

Darren swatted the girl’s hand away and the van lurched dangerously close to the edge.

Gabriella’s stomach filled with butterflies. She was the cause of this! Once they were parked, and there was no further danger of a dispute erupting on these perilous roads, she would get the girl aside. Tell her she really did want to stick to their plan.

They didn’t stop till they reached Aspen, however, and by then, Gabriella was glad June had insisted on the detour. Her joints screamed, and when she got out of the car and looked around, something about the town tugged at her memories—the hanging baskets of flowers, the ring of mountains…a little like the village where her nonna had lived. A soda fizz of happiness bubbled up in her.

Her sense of foreignness had increased with every mile she’d traveled west, as questions about where she came from, never uttered at all in New York, became almost universal. But in this town the sounds of French and Italian seemed to waft from every passing group of tourists. How pleasant it would be to walk a little.

June caught her eye and saw she’d been right. She pointed down the street to some shops. But her partner intervened.

He had dark glasses on now, which Gabriella thought strange, since he’d never once worn them during the sunny drive through the mountains. And there was something else about his looks she didn’t like: an incongruous freckle-faced, gap-toothed boyishness.

None of them, not even the big boy from the back of the van, contradicted Darren when he said it was time to eat or questioned his choice of a sidewalk cafe with a neon sombrero, where molded plastic armchairs surrounded glass tables.

As they sat, June picked the cocktail menu from its stand.

“Ooooh!…Guys?” she said, showing the card around.

When they’d all had a few sips of salt-rimmed margaritas, Gabriella noticed that the girl’s eyes had begun to wander to the other diners. Like a beautiful lizard, June licked seductively at the edge of her glass, then caught the eye of an older man at a table nearby and shrugged an apology for her goofiness. It was enough to bring him over, glass in hand, an offered “Good, aren’t they?” while his other hand went out in introduction: “I’m Max. May I?”

June nodded, and Max reeled over a chair, placing it next to Gabriella’s.

He was a rich man—Gabriella could see that from the quality of his clothes and rings—and he had the air of a regular at the café.

The blind eyes of Darren’s sunglasses pinned June to the back of her chair, which she’d slid down in to rest her neck, but she ignored Darren and elaborated on the places she’d heard of in nearby Utah and Arizona. Max took the bait and told them about red rocks and purple canyons somewhere to the south.

The waiter came, and Max ordered another round of drinks.

Little darts of anger passed silently between June and her partner. Max noticed: It showed in the way he tried to draw Darren out.

Of Gabriella Max asked many questions, too. All of them about Italy. None about what she sensed he most wanted to know: what she was doing traveling with this threesome less than half her age.

She was already regretting it. If she’d taken a bus, she’d be in California tomorrow. It had been foolish to try to save a few dollars this way. She’d only stumbled on the notice-board by accident, while ambling around the picture-postcard campus.

When the check finally arrived, Max scooped it up and pulled his fat wallet out before June—with the reptilian slowness she’d acquired as the meal wore on—could claim it.

Darren put a toothpick in his mouth and sat coldly waiting to see what June would do when the folder came back with Max’s change. Gabriella thought Max must have found his pose threatening because he didn’t invite them back to his house, as she’d been certain he’d intended to. Instead he accepted their thanks, wished them good luck, and headed slowly off down the street.

“Congratulations, June,” Darren said, “you got him to pay without even having to fuck him—”

“Just shove it, will you!”

“Let’s go,” he said, kicking one of the chairs out of his way.

“We have to know where we’re going first!”

“You said there was a campsite near here.”

“Yeah, but GPS might not work once we’re out of town.”

He chewed the toothpick menacingly as she ran off, saying, “I’ll ask Max.”

From where they were, they could see her stop the older man and gesture. Gabriella was certain she saw Max give June something that she shoved into her jeans pocket, but when June returned, she didn’t say a word, just cocked her head at the van.

At the campsite, Darren and June pulled out a pup tent that Gabriella could hardly believe would sleep two and handed her one like it.

It was spring, mild during the day, but the temperature had dropped dramatically now. Gabriella struggled to set up the tent. Finally she got it, rolled out the flimsy sleeping bag assigned her, and crawled in. The little bit of privacy was a relief, but soon she began to quiet enough to hear the others. There was low talk from one side; from the other, tinny music. As she shifted to find a comfortable bit of ground, a hump of earth pressed so that she became aware of her bladder. She thought of holding it, but knew she’d be afraid to get up after everyone was asleep.

When she slithered out of her tent, and moonlight peeked from behind a cloud, she saw them—like bulgy braided snakes trying to shed a single skin…



She woke to a shivering cold dawn, her nose and forehead, and the tips of her ears where they stuck out of the sleeping bag, numb. They would head for Las Vegas this morning, she thought. The couple would be back in harmony after all that mambo-ing.

But when she arrived at the building where a little line was forming for the sinks, June waved her over to where she’d piled her toiletries and stood splashing cold water over her face.

There was a smug look about her.

“So, Gab,” she said. “Where’d you like to go today? That cool place Max was telling us about isn’t too far off our route. You ever been to a national park?”

Gabriella shook her head. “But, the boys—”

“Don’t worry about them.” She rubbed her face energetically. “Dar’s gonna do what I tell him. And that other guy—Earbud-man—if he doesn’t want to go, we can drop him in town.”

Gabriella shook her head. “Please…”

“What’ve you got waiting for you, Gab? It took a lot of work to change Darren’s mind, believe me. And I did it for you. We’ll call it Gabriella’s Day, okay?”

“No…” Gabriella said. “Is no for me!”

“Okay, how about this, then. You relax for one day, just roll with it, and I swear we’ll get there tomorrow. We have to be there tomorrow night anyway, ’cause Darren’s got tickets to some stupid concert he’s freaking out about. I want to see some of these places, too. We can call it ‘June’s Day’ if that’s what you want.”



Voracious from the night in the open air, they stopped first for a farmer’s breakfast. The smell of the coffee nearly made Gabriella swoon, and she couldn’t help smiling as she sucked down hot biscuits, and butter ran from the corners of her mouth. By the time big platters of eggs clattered down onto the table, even poker-faced Darren was becoming boisterous. Gabriella’s anger at June’s tactics all but disappeared and a satisfying tingle began to creep through her. She hadn’t sought this day, but she’d given in to it, and suddenly she yearned for it to be one of happiness: an adventure—in a life with too few moments of spontaneous fun.

June hadn’t yet told them exactly where they were going, and her elusiveness lent a whiff of enchantment to the meal.

The sun shone brightly over the mountains when they stepped outside, Darren again putting the question of where they were headed, June only looking at her phone and winking.

As he drove, they played games like I spy with my little eye—sardonically, and then in earnest.

Until what June spied was a sign for Grand Junction, where she insisted Darren turn off. And here, when they’d rolled into town, she would not be denied the shopping she’d missed the day before, roaming from shop to shop until even Gabriella was weary.

The boys lounged in the sun. Darren, whose eyes were covered by the sunglasses again, betraying his irritation by the twitch of his lips.

“What kind of crap you pick up now?” he said when June finally plopped down next to him with her bags.

She feigned a scowl, pushing him away when he attempted to look in one of them, and pulled from it a box in which a silver necklace inlaid with turquoise gleamed.

“You put any more a’ that shit on, you’re gonna look like a Christmas tree.”

Gabriella laughed. June did have ornaments everywhere: several rings per ear, and one in the side of her nose. Three bracelets on one arm, two on the other. Her latest purchase, however, was of an altogether better quality. Gabriella wondered where the money for it had come from.

Her own treasure was pinned inside her clothes, disguised by a bulky shirt.

As if she could read Gabriella’s mind, June pulled a receipt from her pocket, displaying it with pride. When she’d done the clasp on the necklace and let it fall against her clavicle, she pulled out her phone and took a selfie.

“We done?” Darren asked.

“Not hardly.” She shot Gabriella a don’t-dare-object look and said, “Back to 70, driver.”

They drove for more than an hour, crossing into Utah, then turning onto a smaller highway. The ground all around had been transitioning to fiery clay as they went, the rocks rising at the edge of the horizon becoming luminous.

When finally they pulled up inside the park, Gabriella couldn’t believe her eyes: arch after arch glowing salmony red, most large enough to march armies under. Everywhere another triumphal structure, a gallery of them, covering a space as vast and otherwise barren as the surface of an alien planet.

As they climbed down from the van even June and Darren were stunned to a respectful hush.

Gabriella wandered away by herself. An undertow of worry that her past would catch up to her, ensnaring her in public shame, had threatened to pull her under for nearly two thousand miles. Here, in the shadows of the giant rocks, it finally let her go.

She was agile for her age and scrambled up the bases of the more horizontal arches, reassured by the flank of the sun-warmed stone. As the minutes stretched she felt she might simply dissolve into the earth, the air, and the lowering sun, without a single regret.

The sun was casting long shadows among the arches before June came to find her.

“Park’s closing in a few minutes, Gab,” she said gently.

“Yeah…Okay.” Gabriella slid off the side of the rock, waited for her wobbly legs to steady, and, feeling as light as the desert air, put an arm around the girl’s shoulder.



They set their tents in a wide arc around a campfire that night, unpacking hot dogs and s’mores. When Darren couldn’t find his Gerber knife to cut cooking twigs, Gabriella pulled a girly pink army knife from her pack and offered it.

Laughing, Darren took it, his distrust of her forgotten…for a moment.

The spell cast by the massive arches lasted through dinner. Or maybe it was the hypnotic dance of the campfire flames. Whatever it was, confidences were shared that in daylight would pass only between intimate friends.

Gabriella talked about her husband—how they’d hardly known each other when she came with him to America. How her life had been bounded, suffocatingly, by his domineering family and her job as maid to a wealthy old woman. How, finally, she had walked out the door without even letting him know where she was going.

How Darren and June and Jason had their whole lives before them and shouldn’t waste it being afraid to try new paths.

It was an opening for Jason to say, “Right, well here’s something you should try,” as he passed her a joint. “Say hello to mary jane.”

Gabriella waved it away at first, then, to prove her point, took it and tried to inhale, coughing until she got the hang of it. Later, she couldn’t recall much of their talk in detail; every momentary thing—the snap of the fire, the howl of some creature out in the canyons behind them—seemed to suck all of her attention into itself. She would vaguely remember bits of June’s story—her hardscrabble childhood with a single mother, how Darren’s family had cut him off from a sizable allowance, believing June was after his money—but the drug proved a garbler of certainty.

Who knew how long they sat like that, smoking and talking and watching the fire. Eventually Gabriella was aware that Darren had folded his jacket and laid his head down. June’s arms crept around Jason’s neck and soon the two of them drifted quietly away from a snoring Darren. At that moment, this new pairing seemed natural to Gabriella: the conclusion to a day of peace and love.

When, much later, she made it to her tent, she left the flap open and stared into the vast sky. It had been a good day, June’s day. Or maybe it had been Gabriella’s day after all—one of the best of her life.



It was sometime in the middle of the night that things started to go wrong. By first light what had wakened Gabriella as a snarling murmur had risen to shouts. As she tested her stiff joints, she heard the girl scream, “It’s not as if you never shagged anyone else, Dar!”

Gabriella found her toothbrush and headed for the sinks. She took as long as she could, hoping to reclaim the serenity of the previous evening, but June caught up to her.

“You got it right, Gab,” she said. “Just walk out the back, Jack…

Gabriella blushed, recalling some of what she’d told them about Mario. Hoping she hadn’t mentioned how she’d finally been overcome by such rage—from the years of dismissals, prohibitions, and neglect—that it changed her till she could hardly recognize her own face.

“You no gonna leave him now!” she said. “What we gonna do out here, middle’a nowhere?”

June, now finished washing, ignored her and turned away.

When Gabriella got back to the tents, Jason was moving about, warily avoiding Darren. Soon June and Darren, between violent outbursts, were throwing things into the van, and Gabriella scrambled to keep up. Jason, with the same speed, furled his tent and slipped quietly into the backseat.



They traveled for several hours in hostile silence, punctuated by stops for gas, before the landscape changed again, this time to cracked brown flats of earth—like a never-ending pan of brownies, Gabriella thought. And finally June spoke.

“We’ll be there in about an hour, guys.”

The remark was addressed to Gabriella and Jason, whom she’d turned to as if Darren didn’t exist. But Darren said: “Before we get there, June, it’s your turn to fill up the tank.”

“Can’t. I’m out of money. Spent it all in Grand Junction.”

“Cut the crap,” he said, pulling off a few minutes later at a service area.

The girl gave him a filthy look, but went inside to pay.

They were back on the road and the buildings of a city had appeared on the horizon when Darren pulled his wallet from his pocket, awkwardly searching through it with one hand.

“Weird…I’m sure I put the Drake tickets in here.”

June shrugged, but a tic beneath her eye betrayed her.

“You got them?” he said.

Another shrug.

“The fuck are you playing at, June?”

“I told you I didn’t have any money…Soooo, I made a deal with the clerk back there. It’s a sold-out concert, Dar. He couldn’t believe his luck.”

As he smacked her hard below the eye, the van swerved out of its lane and horns blared.

Dead silence followed, and then, without so much as touching her injured cheek, June said: “You need to take Gab to the bus station, Darren, and drop Jason wherever he wants. And then…you and I are going to talk.”

It was late afternoon, dark closing in. Gabriella hoped there’d be a bus headed for California.

At the station, Darren got out, threw the sliding door open, and ordered them out. He tossed their bags after them, then flung the front door open and yanked June out by the arm.

“What?! You can’t do this, Dar! I’m broke! What’m I gonna do?”

But he was away before they knew it, in a screech of tires.

They all stood looking at one another for a moment, and then Jason, silently saluting goodbye, made for the cabs in front of the station.

Gabriella started to say something—a thank you for the magic of Gabriella’s Day—but the girl was sorting frantically through her purse, throwing things onto the pavement. And so, glad to escape her turbulent orbit, Gabriella went on into the station.



In the middle of the night, as her bus wooshed its way west to L.A., then north to San Francisco, Gabriella began to notice rain trickling down the window—one of many manifestations of June. A girl who’d said she wished she could be transformed like a simple drop of rain.

But that could never be.

When her bus pulled in to San Francisco around nine, they were waiting for her—two uniformed cops requesting her attendance at the police station.

So, she thought, June had talked. She could hardly believe that in the hours since she’d left Vegas, past midnight, they’d tracked her down, but she went with them without protest.

Outside, gulls swooped in the flat grey sky. She felt the detective benignly watching as her eyes ran over the room, finding steel—table, chairs, window frames, doors.

She wasn’t a suspect, he said; this was a routine interview in cooperation with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police. There’d been a homicide, and she was thought to be one of the last people to see the victim.

The shock left Gabriella breathless.

June Matine’s body had been found in an empty field behind the bus station, he said. She’d been stabbed—and then a coyote had gotten to her during the night.

Photographs were laid on the table.

The coyote had made a meal of the girl’s middle, and for a moment Gabriella thought she was going to be sick.

“Darren Spiegel, your driver, says they had a fight,” the detective said. “Says he dropped June off, with you and Jason Marks, at the bus station. Tell me about it. When did you last see her?”

“When he leave us there,” Gabriella said. “By the curb.”

The questions that followed focused on Darren’s violence toward the girl, Gabriella insisting he was unlikely to have come back and killed her.

“Ah, but he did come back,” the detective said. “When he was unloading at his hotel he noticed her phone on the passenger seat. Up till then, he figured she’d just call some guy she had on a string and get a ride back to Boulder. Like the man who paid for your dinner in Aspen, Max Olstead. A real operator, by all accounts. Speigel says he found his card in June’s clothes, and there were texts on June’s phone, inviting him to join her in Vegas.

“Anyway, without a phone or money, Speigel thought June might be in danger. So he went back to find her. And she was gone. That’s his story, and if there weren’t a better suspect, either he or Max Olstead might be in custody…”

Gabriella flinched, and with a mild smile the cop said, “No, not you, Mrs. Bellini.

“Witnesses put June in a bar less than a half-hour after Spiegel dropped you off. It’s not the kind of place you’d expect to find a college student. She left with an older guy who’s got a conviction for assault. Maybe he expected her to put out and she started to scream…” He shrugged. “Guy like that’d be inside again in a minute if a student cried rape. He’s a lot more interesting for this than Spiegel or Olstead, since it would’ve been hard for June to hook up with either of them without her phone.”

Gabriella let out a sigh. She’d had plenty of time to think about June’s string of Darrens and Jasons and Maxes—and now there was this new one.

It was on the tip of her tongue to say that the detective was probably right about the motive—somebody’d had too much to lose—and to add that June had been too young to know how much more dangerous the desperation of middle-age is than the ruthlessness and recklessness of youth.

Gabriella hadn’t known that herself until last night.

But she pressed her lips together and shook her head. She hated having to lie. The cop deserved the truth. But she couldn’t summon the courage to tell it.

“Well, that should be all, Mrs. Bellini,” he said. “We’re just dotting some i’s for the LVMPD.”



When Gabriella emerged onto the street, the sky was clearing and the sun was sending down warming rays. She shook with relief.

When her hands were steady enough, she slung her pack over her shoulder and clutched it tightly, remembering June’s words as she’d sidled up to Gabriella in the empty station restroom, near midnight last night: “Oughta be more careful with those jewels, Gab.”

Gabriella hadn’t realized until that moment that her treasure was no longer pinned inside her clothes, and when she recovered from the shock of seeing June there, she grabbed her pack, wondering if she’d been in such a stupor from Jason’s mary jane that she’d thrown the jewels in there when she’d undressed at the park—and June had rifled through it as she slept.

“So, Gab,” June continued, “where ya headed? If you haven’t got enough cash to buy me a ticket, too, I noticed a pawnshop near the bar I was just in.

“Looks like the kind of place you wouldn’t be questioned about where you got those diamonds. It wasn’t from your husband, was it? More likely from that old lady you told us about…”

Sweat had broken out all over Gabriella’s body. Her hand groped in her pack, but it was her army knife her fingers closed on. When her fist emerged white-knuckled around it, June’s eyes went wide—not with fear, but with Gabriella’s betrayal.

Now, as the remaining clouds floated tranquilly apart over the bay, Gabriella felt the whole thing could almost have been a dream, in which she’d only imagined she might have used that blade.

But then the beast of her despair rose again inside her, savage to protect her little bit of freedom, and she knew it didn’t matter. She’d as good as killed June anyway.

Because the last time she’d seen the girl, from the window of the station waiting room, she’d been running from the shelter she’d hoped to find back into the devouring night.


Back to TOC




Montezuma’s Revenge

Michael Bracken


Back then it was easier to cross the border with a corpse in the trunk than it was to cross with a lid of grass in the glove compartment. Cadaver dogs didn’t work the checkpoints, Customs officers were more interested in hassling hippies than bothering businessmen, and white Anglo-Saxons entering the U.S. from Mexico did not trigger racial profiling. My partner would have appreciated the ease with which we crossed the border on our way home if he hadn’t been the corpse.

Arnie and I had entered Mexico from Texas several days earlier, hired to find one of Willard “Jumbo” Johnson’s former employees, a bookkeeper who had disappeared with a quarter-million-dollars taken from Jumbo’s safe. We planned to recover the cash, eliminate the bookkeeper, and return home without ever contracting Montezuma’s revenge.

Almost three decades earlier, Arnie and I had met as front-line grunts slogging through Europe while driving Heinies back to the Fatherland, and we’d worked together ever since. Though we had no marketable job skills when we returned home from Europe, we landed jobs as bouncers at the Blue Note, one of Jumbo’s Houston jazz clubs, and began doing collections work on the side. Before long we gave up bouncing and concentrated on collections, hiring out to low-level bookies and loan sharks around the city, and we were surprised when Jumbo retained us twenty-five years after we’d left his employ. Rumor was the police department provided his muscle, so we didn’t understand why Jumbo needed us until we learned we’d be traveling south of the border.

After finishing one last collection for Manny Goldstein, we left Houston in my black Cadillac Sedan de Ville, and soon after crossing the border realized what a poor choice it was for traveling unpaved Mexican back roads. Jumbo’s former bookkeeper was last seen at a wide spot in the road on the Gulf coast of Mexico, a village the color of dirt just large enough for a cantina, a church, a bodega, a service station, and a six-room posada, and we drove straight through. Upon arrival the following evening, we rented one of the rooms at the posada, cleaned up, and then found Frankie Sherman downing tequila shots in the nearby cantina.

She was last-call beautiful—the kind of woman you’d take home after a night of drinking but wouldn’t want to awaken next to the following morning—and it was obvious she had once been a looker. Though still blonde and blue-eyed, age and alcohol had worn at her, and she’d gone native, wearing a loose-fitting, multi-colored cotton peasant dress and huarache sandals. Her hair hung limply to her shoulders, held away from her face by a pair of silver combs, and she wore no makeup.

Arnie was no beauty either. His nose had been broken twice and never properly reset, and his face had grown doughy with age, even as his hairline retreated and his weight settled around his waist. Like me, he wore a lightweight blue suit over a white button-front dress shirt and a skinny black clip-on tie. Our flattops had been touched up just before leaving Houston, but they drooped in the sweltering heat, and our black wingtips were coated in dust—the same dust that covered my Cadillac—after our short walk from the posada.

We settled onto wooden stools on either side of Jumbo’s former bookkeeper. My knuckles were still bruised from giving the what-for to a late-paying greengrocer with a rock-solid jaw, and Frankie eyed them as we introduced ourselves.

“You look thirsty,” Frankie said. She attracted the attention of a man the color and texture of worn leather, ordered a trio of tequila shots, and pushed one to each of us. “I wondered when you’d find me.”

She lifted her glass in silent toast.

After we all downed our drinks, I asked, “Where’s Jumbo’s money?”

“You just drank it.”

“How’s that?”

“I spent most of it on new I.D. that didn’t fool anyone or you wouldn’t be here.”

“Jumbo says you took him for a quarter mill.”

“He lied,” she said. “Nineteen thousand and change.”

“He inflated his loss?”

“And likely kept the difference.”

“Fertitta won’t like hearing that.”

“Not my problem.”

Arnie was a little slow to follow the conversation, and he said, “So there’s no money to recover.”

Frankie turned to Arnie and put one hand on his knee. “Not from me.”

To the back of her head, I said, “We’ll have to confirm that ourselves.”

Frankie motioned to the bartender, bought a bottle of tequila she paid for with pesos, and led us to the two-room adobe casa where she’d been living since her arrival. A threadbare couch and a chair separated by an end table occupied one half of the front room. A kitchenette with a wooden table and four unmatched wooden chairs occupied the other. The back room contained a bed, a wardrobe, and a six-drawer dresser. A rust-red Volkswagen Beetle with Texas license plates and two flat tires was parked next to the wooden privy a dozen steps from the back door.

We slung our jackets over a kitchen chair and turned our attention to the interior, where an oscillating fan moved tepid air around the front room, neither cooling us nor interfering with the fly buzzing around as we tore the place apart looking for any sign of the stolen money. While we worked, Frankie settled at the kitchen table, opened the tequila bottle, poured two fingers into each of three water glasses, and waited.

We dumped everything on the bed. Shoes, skirts, blouses, dresses, and women’s underthings joined a variety of cheap and inexpensive jewelry, several blank ledger books, and a variety of pens. Three empty purses and a wallet containing identification under two different names joined the pile, as did the contents of a make-up bag and some rather flimsy nightwear.

During our search, Arnie found a dozen hundred-dollar bills and I found several dozen pesos. When we finished taking Frankie’s place apart and found nothing more, we joined her at the kitchen table and threw the cash in front of her.

While Arnie smelled his fingers and made a face, I said, “You told us it was gone.”

“As good as,” Frankie said as she nodded toward the cash. “How long do you think that pittance will last, even down here?”

She pushed the glasses toward us, so we sat.

I’d warned Arnie not to drink the water, so he quenched his thirst with tequila, matching Frankie shot-for-shot. I didn’t.

After we’d emptied most of the bottle, Frankie told us more. “I kept the books for all of Jumbo’s clubs. He was laundering money for the Fertitta family, and he kept a stash of cash in his office safe. I learned the combination by accident.”

“So you knew it wasn’t Jumbo’s money?”

“I knew,” she said, “and I didn’t care.”

“Fertitta is holding him accountable for the loss.”

“Serves him right.”

“Not just the loss, but Fertitta’s charging Jumbo a substantial vig.”

“Still not my problem.”

“What do you think Jumbo wants from you?”

“I sold my soul when I went to work for that man,” Frankie said, “so I’m guessing you’re here to collect it.”

By then, I’d had enough to drink and I was tired from having done most of the driving. I left Arnie alone with Frankie and returned to the posada, where I killed one of two cockroaches startled by the light before I put myself to bed.



The next morning, I woke to find Arnie passed out on the other bed.

I shook him awake and asked, “You learn anything after I left?”

“That woman can out-drink a fleet of sailors,” he said as he sat up, “and she insists she doesn’t have Jumbo’s money.”

“I don’t believe her.”

Arnie stared at me. “You see how Frankie’s living? You think she’d live like that if she had the money?”

“I would,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to draw attention to myself.”

Arnie repeated himself. “She swears she hasn’t got it.”

“What’s going to happen if we go back without Jumbo’s money?” I asked. “One of them is lying, and it doesn’t much matter which one. If she has the money and we take it back, we’re golden. If we go back empty-handed, Jumbo will tell Fertitta we failed. Either way, Fertitta wants his money from Jumbo, and Jumbo’s going to take it out on us.”

Arnie shook his head. “What’s Jumbo ever done for us?”

“He gave us our first jobs.”

“Making ugly faces at mugs and throwing drunks to the curb.”

“We didn’t have anything better,” I said.

“He didn’t like it much when we went freelance, told us we’d never work for him again.”

“And yet here we are,” I said. “Sometimes he needs guys like us who can get their hands dirty.”

“But a woman?” Arnie asked. “We’ve never hurt a woman.”

“We were hired for a job,” I said. “We need to finish it.”

The posada had indoor plumbing, and we took advantage of it before we tore apart Frankie’s Volkswagen, finding nothing more than pocket change and breath mints.

Then Arnie spent the rest of the day drinking with Frankie in the cantina. I spent my time visiting with the locals. Between my broken Spanish and their broken English, I learned that Frankie—Señora Smith to them—had arrived several weeks earlier, had paid six months in advance for the casa, and had spent the time since her arrival sitting in the cantina drinking tequila and awaiting the inevitable.

“Jumbo was using her,” Arnie told me when we met for dinner at the cantina that night. “She had to get away. When she saw the chance, she took it.”

“Using her for what? We’ve heard all kinds of sob stories,” I reminded Arnie. “What makes her story more believable than all the others?”

“Frankie hasn’t asked us for anything and she admits she took Jumbo’s money.”

“Not all of it.”

“She was keeping two sets of books. She said Jumbo was planning to double-cross Fertitta and pin it on her. When she saw a chance to get away, she took it.”

“And all she took was nineteen and change?”

“That’s all there was in Jumbo’s safe the night she hightailed it out of town,” Arnie said. “She says she can prove it. She has life insurance.”

I stared into Arnie’s eyes for a moment and then said, “You’re sweet on her, aren’t you?”

He looked away without answering. I’d seen that evasive non-answer before, and each time Arnie had fallen for a woman she’d broken his heart.

“Don’t get involved,” I said. “Not this time. Not with her.”

My admonition came too late. When Frankie arrived a few minutes later, Arnie finished his rice and beans and left our table to sit with her at the bar. She’d done something with her hair, applied a little make-up, and accented her drab apparel with a silver and turquoise necklace.

“Dos tequila,” she told the bartender, pointedly ignoring my presence.

Using a corn tortilla, I mopped up the last of my dinner, tossed some money on the table, and headed outside. Arnie must have said something funny because Frankie’s laughter followed me into the night.



Our usual approach was simple. When sent to collect past-due funds, Arnie and I braced the welcher, gave him the opportunity to make good on his debt, and listened politely to excuses and promises before providing a physical reminder of why falling behind was a bad idea.

The greengrocer who had been our last assignment before leaving Houston had been so desperate that he offered us a night with his wife. That so enraged Arnie we gave the man a beating far worse than we otherwise might have before we emptied his store’s cash register and suggested to his wife that she double his life insurance before our next visit.

Arnie was right. Frankie had offered us nothing, and we didn’t have the heart to smack her around. Neither of us had ever hit a woman, and we weren’t keen on starting with Frankie. Instead, Arnie was playing a different game, and I wasn’t certain which part of his body was doing the thinking.



Arnie did not return to the posada that night, and I waited until after breakfast of huevos rancheros, corn tortillas, and bitter coffee before I went looking for my partner. I found him in Frankie’s front room, naked and pressing a bloody towel against his abdomen with one hand, a bottle of tequila in the other. He said, “I’m getting too old for this.”

“What happened?”

“You warned me not to drink the water,” Arnie explained. “I didn’t listen. Gave me horrible stomach cramps and I felt almost as bad as I do now.”

He coughed, spit up blood, and then rinsed his mouth with a swing of tequila.

“You were right,” Arnie said. “She’s had Jumbo’s money all along.”

“Where’d you find it?”

“In the privy out back,” he said. He had been stuck there earlier that morning. While bracing himself for a second wave of abdominal cramps, he cut his palm on the tip of a screw coming up through the thick wooden seat shelf from below. When he finished, Arnie reached through the opening he had just vacated and found a hook screwed into the underside of the shelf. From it hung a large macramé handbag. When he brought the handbag inside and dumped the contents on the bed, Frankie shot him with a derringer we had overlooked in our zealous search for Jumbo’s money.

“Where’s Frankie now?”

“On the bed.”

I checked and found Frankie just as naked as Arnie, but dead. Arnie had broken her neck. I also found a single-shot derringer, a yellow macramé handbag, a ledger book filled with numbers written in a feminine script, and twenty-three straps of one-hundred-dollar bills, all of it smelling of Montezuma’s revenge.

I returned to the front room. “I can’t take you to a hospital,” I said. “There isn’t one.”

We passed the tequila bottle back and forth until Arnie could no longer lift it to his lips, and a few minutes later he exhaled his last breath.

Frankie, the derringer, and the handbag went into the privy. Then I wrapped Arnie in a blanket and put him, the ledger, and the money in the trunk of my Cadillac.

My partner was ripe by the time I arrived in Houston the next day, but I convinced a quack with a gambling habit to sign a death certificate citing natural causes. A mortician struggling to pay the vig on a business loan was happy to accept double his usual rate for a same-day cremation, and a guy who had served with us in Europe detailed my car without question.

After a shower and a change of clothes, I made an appointment to meet with Jumbo.



Jumbo was sitting behind his desk and Fertitta was sitting on the black leather couch when I arrived. Jumbo didn’t bother introducing us. He said, “You got my money?”

I tossed a dozen privy-scented hundreds on his desk.

“That’s it?”

“That’s all Frankie had left,” I told him. “She said she only took nineteen thou and change.”

Jumbo’s face turned red as he slapped the desktop and rose from his seat. “The lying bitch!”

Fertitta finally spoke. Turning to me, he asked, “You believe her?”

“Doesn’t matter if I do or I don’t,” I said as I motioned toward the money, “but that’s all Frankie had when we found her.”

“And where is she now?”

I told them what had happened to Arnie without mentioning what he had found, and I told them where I’d left Frankie.

“She also had this,” I said as I handed Fertitta the ledger Frankie had cooked after her arrival in Mexico, the life insurance she never had the chance to cash in.



I don’t know what happened to Jumbo—that was above my pay grade—but a few weeks later someone else was fronting the Blue Note.

I spent the next few years hiring out to the same low-level bookies and loan sharks as before, but work wasn’t the same without Arnie at my side. So, I took his ashes and quietly retired to Puerto Vallarta.

It’s amazing how long two hundred and thirty grand will last in Mexico if you don’t do anything to draw attention to yourself.


Back to TOC




Jerusalem Syndrome

Hilary Davidson


Suzanne Horne fell in love with Tel Aviv at first sight. She’d dreamed of visiting Israel for years, long before she and her husband joined Pastor Ted’s church. The long series of flights—from Houston to Chicago to New York to Tel Aviv—hadn’t sapped her energy, or her enthusiasm. From the air, the city glittered like a jewel at the edge of the Mediterranean. Up close, on the bus drive in from the airport, she was just as impressed. Every way she looked, there were palm trees and names that resonated with Biblical weight, along with modern skyscrapers and a palpable sense of energy.

“Look to your left,” Pastor Ted said as they were getting off the bus beside the hotel. “That’s the ancient port city of Jaffa. Four thousand and five hundred years old and still going strong.”

“Jaffa! Where Jonah was swallowed by the whale!” called out Minday Serle. She poked her teenage daughter, Mercy, in the shoulder. “Remember that?”

Of course you remember that, Suzanne thought. You’ve gone on Pastor Ted’s Tour of the Holy Land every year! Then she caught Mercy’s eye and felt guilty. The girl gave an uncertain nod and her eyes slid to the ground. Minday might be a piece of work, but her daughter was never anything but gentle and shy.

“Exactly, Minday. All right, everyone. Tonight we have dinner and prayer circle,” Pastor Ted said.

“Do we have time to take a short walk on the beach?” Suzanne asked. She could already imagine soft sand under her feet while the Mediterranean lapped at her toes.


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