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Authors: Rick Gavin

beluga

 

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For Sylvie and Jill with gratitude

 

Contents

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Also by Rick Gavin

About the Author

Copyright

 

ONE

It seemed like a good idea even if it came from Shawnica's brother, who was a lowlife and a chiseler but could be inspired sometimes. Me and Desmond had been casting around for investment opportunities, and Shawnica knew we had a little money we were willing to let out. We'd taken it off a crazy Acadian meth lord the year before and didn't mind turning some loose now and then for a rate.

Shawnica's brother had done time in Parchman Prison for robbery and grand theft. Larry had stuck up a pharmacy and stolen a tricked-out Mercury Monterey that he'd insisted straight through to conviction his cousin had told him he could drive. He ended up doing a three-year bit, and all he got up to inside was filing the papers to legally change his name. While the rest of the cons were studying law books and writing their appeals, Larry petitioned the state to let him become Mr. Beluga S. LaMonte. It was his way, I guess, of starting fresh without doing anything constructive.

Larry was staying with Shawnica, and we drove over to hear his scheme. Shawnica's house set Desmond off. It was the one he'd been thrown out of once Shawnica had wearied of him. He'd ended up back at his mom's place in the room he'd grown up in, and Desmond hadn't been twin-bed size in a decade and a half by then. He was decent enough to still be helping Shawnica with the mortgage and repairs. Desmond was the one who cut the grass and kept the porch screen mended. He fixed the leaks and painted the walls, paid for Shawnica's cable TV, and he did it all with typical Desmond grace and fortitude while Shawnica barked at him and worked her way through a string of sleazy boyfriends.

I took it as my job to keep Desmond calm and focused no matter what we met with once we'd stepped inside. But then Larry was stretched out on the sofa with his feet against the wall. He was eating microwave popcorn and rubbing grease all over the afghan that Desmond's aunt had knitted Shawnica as a wedding gift. Desmond claimed to cherish it, but it was yellow and green and brown and so badly made it looked like it belonged under a saddle.

By the time Desmond had said, “Larry, dammit,” there was nothing I could do. Once Desmond had decided a boy needed scuffing up, you couldn't really hope to stop him.

Desmond chuffed like a bear, crossed the room in two strides, and snatched Larry off the sofa. Popcorn went all over the place, along with all of Shawnica's remotes.

Larry said, “Hey!” or something, the way people will with Desmond. It's hard to know what to tell a man when he's turned you upside down.

Shawnica came scurrying out of the kitchen. She shrieked and slapped at Desmond. She was done up like usual with glittery stick-on nails and a couple of dozen metal bracelets, so there was the outside chance that Desmond would get sliced or brained outright. He ignored her for as long as he could while he lifted Larry over his head.

“Put. Him. Down,” Shawnica told Desmond. I would have gone another way, since putting people down tended to be a key feature of Desmond's brand of scuffing.

He deposited Larry on the coffee table. It was made like a wagon seat, built out of knotty pine that went to splinters when Larry hit it. The whole house shook. The lights flickered. Larry landed on a couple of remote controls and busted them to pieces. It wasn't like we could keep from lending him money after that.

Shawnica blamed me. She always blamed me. She came storming over to wag a finger directly under my nose. So I got a full dose of her gardenia scent and the music of her jangly bracelet clatter.

“Uh-huh,” she told me. I took it to mean that me and Desmond were living down to her expectations.

Larry had decided he'd best stay on the floor. He laid there checking for injuries. Larry was fine, of course. He was always fine. Larry was as indestructible as a cockroach and far luckier than he had any need to be. A fellow chasing him with a rifle once had been felled by his own ricochet, and some Little Rock Mafia hard-ass who Larry had sorely offended found Jesus for no good reason and let Larry off the hook.

Larry had grown to think, the way people will, that that was how the world worked. So he'd get all shirty when he'd meet with minor upsets, like getting pitched around his sister's front room by her former husband.

“What the hell!” Larry said.

Desmond objected to his tone and kicked Larry in the sternum, which caused Shawnica to slap me since I was handy for it.

“Hey,” I said to Desmond. I knew better than to touch him. Once he'd started, Desmond would scuff up anyone who came to hand.
“Hey!”

Desmond finally drew a deep breath and deflated a little. “All right.” That was all he ever said to let me know the fever was broken.

“Damn,” Larry told us all and rubbed his chest as Desmond helped him up.

Larry plucked up his empty popcorn bag and shook it at his sister. Instead of crawling up his sphincter, the way she would have done with us, Shawnica stepped into the kitchen to make a fresh sack for him.

Larry flung himself onto the sofa and tried three busted remotes before I leaned over and switched the TV off. Desmond parked in his skirted Barcalounger—Shawnica's Barcalounger now—and I perched on a hassock alongside him so he could only get at Larry if he crawled straight over me.

“Okay now,” Desmond said. “Let's hear it, Larry.”

Larry just looked at us. Wouldn't speak. He finally crossed his arms.

Desmond snorted. “Beluga,” he said at last.

Even then, Larry passed a good half minute eating what popcorn he could forage off the couch. He finally told us, “Boy I know up in Collierville got a line on this thing.”

It was going to be one of those conversations. I said to Larry, “What thing?”

“Tires,” Larry told us. “Michelins. Tractor-trailer load.”

“What boy?” Desmond asked him.

“Skeeter,” he told us. “From the yard.”

I didn't like either end of that. So this was some con he knew from Parchman with a name like a waterbug.

“Skeeter who?” I wanted to know.

Larry waved me off. “Don't matter.”

If Larry hadn't been an in-law, we would have already tossed him onto the porch. A trailer full of tires and a couple of Parchman grads?

“Tell it,” Desmond said to Larry.

Shawnica came in with his popcorn and half a roll of paper towels that Larry tossed directly onto the floor. He explained himself by informing Desmond, “You went and broke the damn table.”

Desmond shifted. “Sorry about that … Beluga.”

“Skeeter knows tires,” Larry told us. “These ain't no retreads or nothing. Straight out of the factory in Kansas or somewhere. Got the stickers and everything. Just like you'd buy them in the store. But that ain't even the beauty part.”

Larry dug a fistful of popcorn out of his sack and shoved it in his mouth. About a third of it ended up on his lap until he'd brushed it onto the floor. He waited. We waited. We were going to have to request the beauty part.

“So?” Desmond said. “What's the beauty part?”

Larry laughed. “Them tires is stole already.”

“Who by?” I asked him.

He waved a hand dismissively. “Some shitbag in West Memphis.”

“Which shitbag?”

Larry pointed at me and grinned at Desmond as if to say, “Who the fuck is this?”

Ordinarily, I wouldn't have cared, but West Memphis is a hellhole. It's across the river on the Arkansas side and makes actual Memphis seem, by comparison, the seat of enlightenment and grace. The place is the Arkansas version of Tijuana without the college kids. Just ample drink and petty crime and the occasional beheading.

A West Memphian stealing tires by the truckful might be somebody we shouldn't know. That's all I was thinking, but the power of in-lawdom seemed to trump even that.

“What's the play?” Desmond asked Beluga LaMonte.

“Skeeter knows this guy, got a truck and shit. Said we could hire him out. Trailer's parked right down on East Monroe, back behind a church.”

“You seen it?” I asked him.

Larry nodded. Larry told me, “Skeeter swung round there. He seen it, tires and all.”

Desmond still wouldn't look at me.

“How much you need?” he asked Larry.

“Hold on. Let's hear the whole thing.”

Desmond turned and studied me now. He gave me a look to let me know this was no time to get particular.

“I just want to know what they've got in mind,” I told him. “Somebody's probably watching that trailer. Don't you think?”

Larry proved pleased for the chance to lay it all out. “We'll go in like … three in the
A.M.
and haul it out of there. Got a buddy in Belzoni with a big tractor shed. We'll drop it in there and let the shit all calm down.”

“What shit?” I couldn't help myself.

“Somebody bound to be mad.”

“Who exactly?”

Larry pointed at me again in his
Who the fuck is this guy?
way.

“How much?” Desmond asked him.

Larry shoved more popcorn in. He gave us a number we couldn't make out. It was just as well, because once he'd swallowed and told us again, it turned out that he'd said, “Fifty.”

“Thousand?” I tried to make it sound like a point of clarification, but getting up off the hassock as I said it didn't help.

“Seems like a lot,” Desmond told Larry. He turned around to find Shawnica in the kitchen doorway. “Seems like a lot,” he told her, too.

She nodded and said to Larry, “Tell them what you need it for.”

“Expenses and shit,” Larry informed us.

I glared at the side of Desmond's head.

“Got plans for the tires?” Desmond asked Shawnica's brother.

Larry pressed his lips together and nodded like him and Skeeter had given that some deep thought.

“Going to find out what kind of sizes we have.” Then he looked at me. “Tires come in like a hundred different sizes.”

“I've heard.”

“So we figure what we got”—he was back on Desmond now—“and we work from here like down to Vicksburg maybe and let them go for a price. Stop at the garages and shit, take orders like people do.” Meaning people who hadn't passed three years in Parchman changing their names.

“How many tires are we talking?” I asked him.

“Full load. Skeeter seen them. I don't know. Four or five hundred maybe.”

“What are you going to ask?”

Larry reached down beside the sofa and plucked a catalog off the floor. It was from the Walmart in Indianola and had a page devoted to tires. Mostly tires from Bangladesh or Borneo or somewhere, but there were a few Michelins in the mix. They started at two and a quarter.

“We're thinking a hundred.”

“Think seventy-five and get puckered to take fifty,” I told him.

Larry pointed at me again.

“A hundred's steep,” Desmond informed him, and then he informed Shawnica too.

“Might go eighty,” Larry allowed.

“The shit's hot, genius. The trick is to move it.”

This time he only looked at me, couldn't be bothered to point.

“I don't know,” Desmond said. “Sounds all right to me.”

“For fifty thousand?” I'm sure my tone had more of an edge to it than I'd intended. We'd taken three hundred grand off our Acadian fuck stick, so we had fifty to spare, but I just couldn't see the sense of giving it to Larry.

Desmond grunted. “I might can see about forty from here.”

“Where the hell you looking?”

“Maybe,” Desmond said and paused to swallow, “Beluga … you ought to tell us about your expenses.”

“Got to pay the truck guy. Got to grease a couple of boys in West Memphis, the ones that put us onto this shit in the first place. Need to pay some rent to the boy in Belzoni with the tractor shed. Then me and Skeeter'll be needing to get around all over the place. Ain't got no car between us. Got to have some money for that.”

“What do you figure on driving?” Desmond asked him.

Larry described a Jaguar or something. He'd seen it on a lot over in Jackson. He veered into something close to raptures about the faceted chrome wheels.

I let him finish before I told Desmond, “I can see maybe fifteen from here.”

“Hold on now,” Larry told us both. “I'm going to double your damn money. You want that magic on fifteen or you wanting it on fifty?”

“Five hundred tires?”

Larry nodded at me.

“Fifty apiece?”

“Says you.”

“That's two hundred and twenty-five thousand. You double our fifty and give it back, that's a big bite out of that. Ought to whittle the expenses down. Bare bone it.”

“Might listen to the man,” Shawnica told him. I hadn't expected that.

“Forty, then,” Larry suggested.

“I might can see twenty,” I told him.

Desmond slapped his massive thighs with both his massive hands. “Thirty,” he told us all and got up out of his Barcalounger, which was kind of a process given how much of Desmond there was to lift.

“Six months to turn it?” I asked Desmond once he was fully upright. He nodded.

“I hear you,” Larry told us. He reached for the afghan to wipe his popcorn grease away and then offered his hand to Desmond, who swallowed hard and took it. He shook it once and grunted. He let Beluga have it back.

 

TWO

In Desmond's Escalade on the way to my place, I laid out my misgivings. Larry was preeminent among them, but I would like to have known who he was stealing from as well.

Desmond was in a grunting mood. Family will do that to you, so it was me talking mostly, with Desmond content to grumble behind the wheel.

“If Larry's right and this guy stole a load straight from the Michelin factory and has the stones to park it downtown, even in West Memphis, you got to figure he's connected somehow. One end or the other. Got people at the factory. Got people in West Memphis. Might be hooked up at both ends. You hearing me?”

Desmond turned onto my street off the main Indianola drag. It was a beautiful April evening with the rich Delta scent of flowers in the air.

“Yeah,” he said. “Larry's problem. I'm sure we won't be messing with them.”

“That's optimistic,” I told him, and Desmond gave me a Desmond look that let me know we were finished talking about it.

“I'm taking it all out of your box,” I told him as he wheeled into the drive.

Desmond grunted. Desmond said, “I would.”

My landlady, Pearl, was out in the driveway looking for a cat. She had one of her late husband Gil's old flashlights with batteries he'd probably put in it. She would have been just as well off with a couple of birthday candles.

“Fergus!” She shouted it toward the neighbor's house, toward the back of her lot, toward me and Desmond rolling to a stop in her driveway.

Desmond looked at me.

“Cat,” I told him. “Been AWOL for a week.”

“Didn't know Pearl had a cat.”

I flung my door open. “Doesn't.”

That was about as near to a spat as me and Desmond ever got. I went in for door flinging. Desmond preferred neck noises. He made one and climbed on out.

“What are you looking for, Miss Pearl?”

Pearl was a proper Delta belle through and through. She might have been a fading flower and more down at heel than she'd ever imagined she'd get, but she still had that Delta debutante way of talking down to the coloreds. It wasn't a choice with people like Pearl. It was like being blond or having teeth.

“Aw, honey,” she said and laid her tiny white hand on Desmond's shoulder. “My cat's run off. Told a friend I'd keep him for her. Don't know what I'm going to do.”

That was typical Pearl. She couldn't keep anything straight in her head anymore. One of Pearl's friends had passed away. Not a Presbyterian friend but a canasta friend. Pearl had once explained the difference. It had nothing to do with the Lord. Canasta friends, as I understood it, were casual and fair-weather. If one of them got sick or had trouble in her life, she'd just get set aside and somebody else would take her seat. Presbyterian friends were different. You had to pretend to care about them.

So a canasta friend had passed away, a woman named Ailene. I'd actually been kind of fond of Ailene. She carried a pint of apple brandy in her handbag and was loud and vulgar, chain-smoked Salems, and played cards like a pirate. I could always hear Ailene laughing when Pearl had the game at her house.

She'd died a couple of weeks back in the beauty shop under the dryer. The girls thought she'd just dropped off to sleep and had a heroically high threshold for heat. Pearl ended up over at Ailene's house picking through her closets since Ailene didn't have any children, just second cousins down in Destin. When Pearl and her other canasta friends came away with what they wanted, Ailene's cat must have sensed that the jig was up and slipped into Pearl's car.

I remember the afternoon she came home from Ailene's because of all the screaming. I was changing my oil in the car shed and came out to check on Pearl. She was sitting in her Buick with the driver's door open. She was quivering and close to tears.

“You all right?”

She shook her head. “Went right across my lap.”

I looked around. I didn't see anything. “What?”

“Possum, I think.”

“Coming in? Going out?”

She pointed toward the side yard, more specifically toward a Nuttall oak that her Gil had planted and nursed. It came with a story like most everything around Pearl's house, and she launched into it automatically. That was the way with Pearl and her stories. Of course, I'd heard about Gil's Nuttall oak by then. How he'd dug it up down by Yazoo in a spur of the national forest and had brought it home wrapped in a towel and little more than a twig. Then he'd fenced it in to keep the squirrels away, had raised it to a sapling, had very nearly lost it in the '77 drought. But he'd watered it every night in direct opposition to city ordinance, and there it was—a glorious Nuttall oak right in Pearl's side yard.

It was south of glorious, truth be told, because the power company tree trimmer had been through a few years back while Pearl was off in Birmingham. He'd butchered the thing quite thoroughly. Those boys have a talent for that. So it was a glorious Nuttall oak up to where it turned to power line topiary.

Pearl was carrying on about that tree, the way she seemed obliged to, while I looked for the possum that had run across her lap. I checked under the car. I checked in the backseat where Pearl had laid a pile of Ailene's Salem-stinking clothes. Then I walked over to Gil's Nuttall oak and looked up in the stunted canopy. There was a tuxedo cat on a limb up there about the size of a beagle.

“Where have you been?” I asked Pearl.

“Ailene's.”

“She have a cat?”

Pearl nodded. “Fergus.”

“Black and white?”

Pearl nodded.

I pointed him out, and Pearl said, “Oh.”

She'd tried to feed and tame him during the time that had passed since then, but Fergus was on the feral side and wouldn't be domesticated.

With Desmond out on the driveway, Pearl could give him both the Fergus story and the saga of Gil's transplanted Nuttall oak. He was a trapped man and knew it. For my part, I veered off toward the basement.

“Checking on something,” I called to them both once I was halfway across the yard.

Pearl never locked her basement, so we were taking a chance keeping money down there, but the place was such a cluttered mess—almost everything in it was broken—that you could look inside and see there wasn't anything to take. Since there weren't any stairs up into the house, it was just its own junky thing and didn't even lead to a place that might be better. A fellow would have to be sorry and industrious both to wade into that thicket, and those are traits you rarely find paired together in a man.

Our cash was all in a big plastic toolbox on a low shelf in a back spidery corner. There were lawn chairs leaned up against the cabinet in case the spiders weren't enough. Even Desmond wouldn't mess with the thing. He'd linger in the basement stairwell and have me go get money out whenever he needed some.

I moved the chairs. I opened the box. We had maybe two hundred and forty thousand left from the three and change we'd started with. As I counted out Larry's money, I was already writing it off.

I might even have dwelled a bit on Larry and grown sullen in the basement if Fergus hadn't scared me half to death. He didn't leap out or anything. He had too much bulk for that. Fergus was just sitting on a patio table, an old wooden one with a couple of splintered slats. He was watching me with his yellow eyes until he got a sudden urge to bathe. When he went to lick a paw, I vaulted and nearly hit a rafter.

“How'd you get down here?”

Fergus yawned.

“She's looking for you,” I told him.

Fergus got an urge to lick his belly, indulged it, and then studied me the way cats will. If he could have talked, he probably would have said, “You still here, asswipe?”

I'd been around cats enough to know how to pick a strange one up, but I couldn't be sure that Fergus's neck scruff would support Fergus's tonnage. He burbled some when I hoisted him. For my part, I swore quite a lot and then went running up the steps and across the yard, desperate to set him back down.

“Look here,” I shouted, and Pearl turned her wan light beam upon us.

“Oh, baby!” Pearl made me give him to her against my better judgement, and he stayed in her arms for a nanosecond before clearing out for Gil's oak. Fergus scrabbled up the trunk and perched on a limb. Pearl turned her flashlight on him.

“Kind of big for a cat,” Desmond said.

“Kind of big for a pony,” I told him.

*   *   *

I let Desmond handle Beluga. I'd done my bit by showing up and listening to Larry's spiel. It seemed certain somebody would make some money. I just wasn't convinced it was us.

“You going to give it to him all at once?” was the only thing I asked Desmond.

“To her,” he told me, and that was about the best thing he could do.

Then four or five weeks went by. I didn't think much about it except for when the twinges hit. I'd imagine Larry in new sneakers we'd underwritten. Larry in Gucci glasses. Larry riding around in a Range Rover with a gold-plated Rolls-Royce grille. I kept it all to myself since I knew that Desmond was just doing for an in-law, by which I mean I didn't come right out and complain, but me and Desmond did chafe for a bit.

We work together. That's how we met. For a couple of months there, after we'd taken all that meth kingpin's money, me and Desmond were men of leisure, up to nothing in the middle of the day. It was all right for the first few weeks, but it wore poorly after a while. We were like kids out of school for the summer, hating the classroom but bored half to death.

So we started showing up back at the shop where we'd worked and getting in the way. Kalil, who runs the place, tolerated us for a bit. It's a rent-to-own store, and he let me and Desmond hang around the showroom and harass all the guys who were actually working until a call came in one day, probably about a year ago now. Kalil had sent Ferris out to repo a stove, just him alone with his ratty Ford Ranger and a hand truck. We didn't like Ferris. Nobody liked Ferris. His girlfriend would even come by to belittle him two or three times a week. He was a bony, tattooed fellow with his eyeteeth missing and no experience with a bathtub or a comb.

Every time he introduced himself he said, “Like the wheel, goddammit.” It didn't matter the circumstances. He would have said it to the pope.

“Got him in a closet,” Kalil told us and handed Desmond a scrap of paper with an address scribbled on it.

“Who's got him?” I asked.

Desmond studied the address. “Down below Moorhead?”

Kalil nodded. “Lawtons.”

“Which Lawtons?” I asked him, and Kalil just flattened his lips and shook his head.

“They'll feed him to their pigs,” Desmond said.

It was a real possibility with those Lawtons. The good side of the family wasn't prosperous exactly, but they were decent and reliable. When they got behind on payments, you knew there was nothing else they could do. The bad Lawtons were mean and sorry and didn't care who found it out. They were all cousins or something—the good and the bad—and spent holidays together. There would reliably be a picnic ham and most usually an assault.

Desmond waved the scrap of notepaper. “Who?”

Kalil hated to tell us. “Oscar.”

“Give it back to him” was my suggestion.

“Send one of them,” Desmond suggested to Kalil.

We all looked at Kalil's staff on hand. They were sitting on the homely sofa Kalil could never sell. With the tufts and the skirts and the Chesterfield buttons. They weren't, as a group, inspiring. I knew the boys on either end. They'd get put in a closet, too. The ones in the middle were entirely new to me, but Desmond was acquainted with one of them.

“What about him?” Desmond asked and pointed at the boy he knew.

“Some fool went after him with a Garden Weasel. He's still a little gun-shy.”

“We don't even work for you anymore.” I knew that was a last resort when I said it.

“Maybe you miss it,” Kalil suggested. “Or maybe you ought to find out.”

“It's a stove?” Desmond asked him.

And there we were, right back in it again.

We drove over in my Ranchero and parked it back beyond a hedgerow, well out of gunplay range. The good Lawtons lived in a Lawton compound that backed onto a rice field. They had dirt instead of grass and a couple of cannibalized sedans, but their place overall was a shade more neat than not. The bad Lawtons lived in a domesticated landfill. They just went to the doors, both front and back, and pitched out whatever they'd decided didn't belong under the roof anymore. That might be last night's pizza boxes or a dinette chair.

When we peeked around the trees, we spied a county cruiser parked in the Lawtons' yard. Parked, anyway, behind a harrow and some sort of busted seeder. The driver's door was open, and Kendell was sitting under the wheel.

He saw us, too.

“Can't leave it alone,” he shouted out our way.

We went over to him crouching low since you couldn't be sure a Lawton might not squeeze off the odd recreational round.

Kendell was Desmond's cousin somehow. He was a ferocious Baptist and had disapproved of how me and Desmond hadn't been up to much for a while. He had suspicions about what we were living on and everything we'd gotten up to, but I guess he decided to pray for us both instead of haul us in. I liked Kendell. He was what I had instead of a stout, unwavering conscience.

“Kalil snared us,” I told him.

Kendell nodded. “Bound to in the end.”

“What are you here for?” Desmond asked him.

“They took a shot at the meter reader.”

“What the hell for?” I knew when it came out the sort of looks I'd get. Desmond and Kendell eyed me the way Delta people often did when I tried to apply some regular standard of cause and effect to the place.

The bad Lawtons were essentially sovereign citizens without the impeccable philosophical underpinnings and the patriotic good humor of constitutional crackpots most everywhere else. They'd shoot at you, if you were a meter man, because they had bullets and a gun.

“What brings you?” Kendell asked us.

Desmond sort of pointed at the house. “Boy in the closet. One of Kalil's.”

“Who?”

“Ferris,” I said. “Know him?”

Kendell nodded. “Like the wheel.”

“You waiting on backup?” Desmond asked him.

Kendell climbed out of his cruiser. “Guess you'll have to do.”

They didn't believe in SWAT in the Delta. There was never a shortage of hulking rednecks wearing a county badge, the sorts of eager brawlers you could pitch into trouble like a terrier down a rathole. I could tell by the way Kendell glanced at me, I was his cracker for the moment.

“Me and him,” he said and pointed at Desmond, “we'll work our way around back. You get them talking. See what they want this time.”

“Want to keep their stove, I'm guessing.”

“Why don't you talk them out of that.”

“Already shot at the meter reader,” I reminded Kendell.

“Make yourself little,” he told me. Beyond that he only winked.

Kendell and Desmond went the long away around, through the corn instead of the rice field, and I saw them take cover in the back of the lot behind what had once been an outhouse. It was vine-choked and tumbledown but big enough to crouch behind.

“Hey, Oscar,” I shouted.

A couple of dogs barked from under the porch. They'd been Lawton dogs long enough to have the good sense to stay just where they were. People who'd shoot at a meter man wouldn't think twice about a mongrel.

After maybe half a minute, Oscar shouted back, “He's not here.”

“It's Nick Reid, Oscar. I know it's you.”

“Ain't me.”

“You got a fellow in the closet?”

“Maybe.”

“Think I can have him back?”

“Well,” Oscar told me, “I don't know about that.”

So we'd finished with the preamble and had arrived at the terms.

“What'll it take?”

I could hear racket from inside and Lawtons shifting around. It wasn't much of a house. The windows were all flung open, and the nasty curtains were hanging over the sills.

“Says he wants our stove,” Oscar finally shouted. “Can't have it.”

“All right.”

“And we want some Fritos.”

“Fine.”

“The big bag. And a twelve-pack of Busch.” There was some muttering in the wake of that. “Hell, a case.”

Kendell eased out from behind the viney outhouse far enough to look my way. I just shook my head and shrugged. A Lawton would want what a Lawton would want.

“All right,” I said. “I can do all that.”

I let the Lawtons enjoy their moment of triumph before I shouted out, “Hey, Oscar.”

“What?”

“You'll need to send that boy out first.”

“The hell I will.”

“That's the only way it'll work.”

There was discussion about that inside.

“And some cigarettes,” Oscar called out. “Three whole damn cartons. Winstons.”

“All right,” I said and waited.

The front door opened, and Ferris came out. He was blinking and in his stocking feet. I motioned for him to come over to me, but he turned instead toward the doorway to piss and moan about his shoes. Then he changed his mind the way that people often do at gunpoint. He crossed the yard to join me at a trot.

“Shit, man,” Ferris told me. “I ain't had them boots a week.”

“You're welcome.”

“Quitting this damn job.” Ferris went stalking toward the road in his filthy socks.

“So?” Oscar called out.

“Going in a minute. I'll pick up all your stuff,” I told them. “Got to get this guy you shot at straightened out first.”

“What guy?”

“Meter reader.”

“Ain't done it!” Oscar had a gift for righteous indignation.

“Somebody did.”

I could hear from inside the sound of a Lawton huddle. That was how they always decided who exactly would get blamed for what. It was like what people do with their Visa cards, trying to pick out the one to use that's got a little more room on it than the others. If a Lawton in there had no charges pending, he was going to get the blame.

They must have all been in trouble, because Oscar soon told me, “That boy of yours, he did it.”

“Ferris shot the meter man?”

By now Kendell and Desmond had slipped up through the side yard and were pressed against the house, easing toward the front.

“Tried to stop him. Wouldn't pay me no mind.”

“So you put him in the closet?”

“Couldn't figure what else to do. Got a bad streak or something. Ought to tell somebody about it.”

I glanced toward Ferris out in the road. He was having an animated conversation with himself.

“Well, all right, then. I'm sorry for all the upset.”

I waited until Kendell had slipped up just alongside the front door. He nodded.

“Fritos and what now?” I said, and that was enough to bring Oscar out. He hated to have to repeat a thing. Everybody in the Delta knew you didn't ask Oscar Lawton to say something twice.

Oscar jerked open the door and came onto the stoop. He looked half determined to shoot me, but Kendell grabbed Oscar's rifle barrel and snatched his gun away before Oscar could react.

Like usual, he was wearing a pajama top and a pair of undershorts. What hair he had left was standing straight up. I had to think Oscar was pushing eighty.

He told Kendell, “Aw,” which was Oscar's standard version of “I guess I'm just giving the hell up.”

Kendell supplied him with the usual instructions, and Oscar invited his household out into the yard. His two boys carried their mother out on what looked like a toilet chair and set her down hard enough to prompt her to bark at them a little. One of those boys was sixty if he was a day. I think the other one was about seventeen.

“Who's going in?” Kendell asked them.

They all pointed at the teenager. He shoved his hands together to make it easy for Kendell to cuff him up.

“How much?” I shouted at Ferris.

He stopped raging in the road and looked at me.

“What do they owe on the stove?”

Ferris scratched his head. He fished a sheet out of his pocket and studied it briefly. “Thirty-two dollars,” he said.

“I ain't got it,” Oscar told me. That's what he always told us.

Me and Desmond went inside and found two twenties in the Bible. We left change and came back out. Even if it was only thirty-two dollars from bad Lawtons, it felt good to be up to something after nearly a year of swanning around and living on our swag.

Kendell was having a word with Oscar. The Baptist in him made him tireless.

“You can't just shove folks in your closet.”

Oscar nodded. “Tell me about it.” He pointed at his son, the older one. He had on a pajama top, too. “Weren't no room until he took his golf clubs out.”

 

THREE

So we went back to work, but me and Desmond were like the special forces. Kalil called us in on the thorny jobs, and as the economy sank in the Delta and the available work ebbed away, Kalil would have me and Desmond go in and sort his business out.

He stayed firmly unsympathetic. You couldn't bend him with a story. People would try all sorts of calamities on him. They couldn't pay for their dinette, their sofa, their TV because of the flood or the
E.coli
or their momma's emergency surgery or some Social Security snafu or the radiation in their basement or a boss (for no damn reason) holding up their check. A few of them would even come right in the store and try to be persuasive. They'd drag children with them and have them rehearsed so they would cry when the time was ripe.

Frequently, Kalil would hold his fire until they'd finished. Then he'd tell them, “Thirty dollars,” or whatever sum they owed and assure them me and Desmond would come haul away their stuff.

That's when the crumpled bills would come out from handbags and trouser pockets. I even saw a boy once pull (I figured) his last twenty from a tiny pouch on his daughter's tennis shoe. Kalil would do the math on his clipboard. The thing was always right at hand. He'd produce a receipt and offer it like he was conducting regular commerce.

There was never so much as a hint of compassion from him. I guess that's why Kalil drank. Armagnac mostly with a splash of Tab. Once he had two in him, he'd sing.

So me and Desmond, if you can believe it, were the human face on the operation. We'd agreed to take the “troubled cases.” That's what Kalil liked to call them. He knew if we came back empty-handed, there wasn't a thing to be done. He paid us a retainer—cash on the first of the month with no taxes drawn from it. It all went straight into our big plastic toolbox down in Pearl's basement.

I don't know why we hadn't thought to work a little before we went back to Kalil. If you roll around all day doing nothing, people get suspicious. People who wouldn't pay you any attention otherwise. So not just Kendell but Kendell's colleagues, and not just Pearl but Pearl's friends, too. Everybody suddenly wonders how you get by doing nothing, where the profit might be in spending your afternoons detailing your car.

I'd even lost a girlfriend over it. I'd sort of been seeing Pearl's niece, Angie. She worked at a hospital up in Memphis, all but ran the place really, and she sort of knew where me and Desmond had come by our pile of cash. Only because I'd gotten full of wine one night and had essentially told her.

She was okay with it until she'd decided she was less okay than she'd thought. So we drifted off the way people will, her one way and me another, and I didn't want that to happen in the general course of things. I didn't want me and Desmond to fall out of favor with everybody. Or just have people like Larry and his buddy Skeeter left for friends.

Once we could say we were back with Kalil—he let us call ourselves supervisors—it was a handle folks could hold to, and that's exactly what they did. The trouble was that as the economy in the country soured, opportunity dried up in the Delta to the point of desiccation. So the ordinary cases got special at a pretty alarming rate.

Kalil wanted to be paid. He had the right to be paid or get his merchandise back, but his clients as a rule were only barely slipping by, so every hiccup turned into a problem. They'd get furloughed from the catfish works for a week or two, and there me and Desmond would be at the door to repossess their bedstead or relieve them somehow of cash they didn't have. It was a sorry state of affairs to be caught between Kalil and decent, luckless people. And me and Desmond without much appetite for Armagnac and Tab.

We weren't three months into supervising when it all came to a head. Kalil had sent me and Desmond out after a washer-dryer. The people only had a couple of payments left, but they couldn't come up with the cash, and the boy Kalil sent out first had only brought back washer hoses.

So me and Desmond rode out. They lived on Black Bayou halfway between Leland and Greenville. Their house wasn't much, but the grass was cut, and there was hardly any junk in the yard. They were out where we could see them, the whole family, I guess. The mother and father, a couple of kids. They were all gathered around a swing set, a brand-new one the man of the house was finishing tightening up with a wrench.