Fred Muldoon needed new shoes.
Leaves and twigs worked their way through the hole in the sole of his right shoe as he walked the woods behind Doyle Industries. He stopped at the chain link fence and stared at the gravel lot, dreading the journey across its uneven surface to his home for the night. He hadn’t drunk enough to ignore the pain those damn rocks would put him through, lodging as they would beneath his big toe. Goddamn gout.
He patted his coat pocket for his bottle of Old Crow. He could sit here, against the fence, drink his whiskey. The night wasn’t too cold, and this was as good a spot as any. He sat down against the sagging fence, unscrewed the cap, and lifted it to his lips. A low roll of thunder interrupted him. He took a quick gulp and replaced the bottle. He hated being wet. It used to be an occupational hazard for the town drunk until Fred stole a pair of wire cutters and used them to cut a hole in a remote corner of Doyle Industries’ fence. Between sleeping in the cabs of Doyle’s trucks and earning whiskey money from telling Jack McBride innocent lies and useless information about the seedier side of Stillwater, Fred Muldoon hadn’t had it this good since 1969.
Tonight, Fred targeted his favorite Mack truck, which seemed to be doing longer and longer trips these past few weeks if its regular absence from the truck yard was any indication. He climbed into the cab and settled down for the night, the smell of wintergreen snuff reminding him of his father. He considered his fifth of Old Crow. It might not be enough tonight.
He took off his shoe and tried to flex his red, swollen toe. Goddamn gout. He lay down on the seat, propped his head on the armrest of the passenger door, and inspected his shoe. He’d had these shoes since the Reagan administration and, while the years told on the scuffed, faded leather, the uppers had twenty more on them, easy. These shoes were the last good thing Fred bought before his slide down the bottle, and he was attached to them. He didn’t cling to them as a tether to a better, more successful past, but Fred figured these shoes would be there when he found the bottom of the bottle or the grave, and he wanted something familiar to keep him company when he got there.
Fred placed his shoe on his chest, drank his whiskey, and tried to imagine a way he could get to Yourkeville to have them resoled. He could probably hit the Methodist preacher up for a ride and maybe even the cost of the soles. He’d have to stay sober to do it—not an appealing thought at the moment. He’d worry about it later. The Old Crow wasn’t going to drink itself.
Fred was well on his way to being drunk when he heard the low voices. Though the truck was high enough he couldn’t be seen from the ground, Fred scrunched down into the seat anyway. He’d long since hocked his watch, and the security lights in the truck yard cut off any chance Fred had of telling time by the moon—not a skill he was good at anyway. He figured it was past midnight. In his seventy years, he’d discovered most bad shit happened after midnight.
Though muffled from the closed door and window, the voices were clear enough Fred could hear every word. He grinned and cuddled his bottle closer. He’d have enough money to buy its replacement, or two, very soon.
“I’m telling you, I don’t trust him.”
“And I’m telling you, I don’t give a shit.”
Fred’s ears perked up at the sound of a woman’s voice. He didn’t need to see her to know who she was.
“You’re only saying that because you’re fucking him.”
Fred shifted in the seat, not particularly wanting to hear more. His shoe dropped to the floorboard with a thud.
“Did you hear something?” the woman said.
Fred froze and pressed himself further down into the seat. If the woman stepped on the running board and peeked into the cab, he wouldn’t live long enough to finish his Old Crow.
“Don’t change the subject.”
Fred’s body sagged with relief. He sucked down the rest of his bottle, in case it was his last.
“Why would I change the subject? You’re the one who sounds like an ass, not me.”
“Jealousy doesn’t become you.”
The man snorted.
“I’ll explain it again,” the woman said as though talking to a child. “Having the chief ’s brother in our organization works to our advantage. If McBride takes us down, which won’t happen, then he’ll take his brother down with us. Pollard said McBride and his mother have bailed Eddie out of scrapes for twenty years.”
“They won’t bail him out forever. Everyone has a breaking point.”
“You speaking from experience? Maybe you should take some time off.”
“So McBride can waltz into my place? I don’t think so.”
The woman sighed. “God, why are men so fucking needy?”
“I’m not needy. I just don’t trust Eddie McBride.”
“Well, I do.”
“I asked him to do something and he did it.”
“It doesn’t concern you. Don’t forget who’s in charge. Are you done pouting?” After a pause, she said, “Good. I need you to set up a meeting with the Pedrozas.”
“Because kids are overdosing on their dirty heroin, and I’m going to put a stop to it.”
“You think they’re going to stop selling because you say please?”
“No. I’m going to offer a truce.”
“They’re going to smell blood if you do.”
“I hope so. That’s when you let Jack McBride pick you up. He’s been looking for you for weeks.”
“What? I’m not going back to jail.”
“You won’t. You’ll make a deal. The Pedrozas in return for an easy sentence. You’ll get out, come back, and I’ll give you the Cypress County operation.”
“The whole thing?”
“Everything. Numbers, girls, drugs. Imagine taking it to your grand wizard. Y ’all can fund your cause for years.”
“Chris won’t like giving up the numbers.”
She laughed. “He’ll do what he’s told.”
“What about Eddie?”
Fred heard a rustling, and the timbre of the woman’s voice dropped. He almost didn’t hear her next comment.
“He’s our protection from McBride.”
“I’ve seen the way you look at him.”
The clink of a belt being released, then the man said, “Fucking’s your answer to everything, isn’t it?”
“You’ve never complained before.”
The man moaned and, besides the sound of feet scraping for purchase on the gravel, Fred heard nothing for a full minute. He lifted his head from his prone position and saw the top of a man’s head pressed against the door of the truck, his hand grasping the side view mirror as though hanging on for dear life. Fred lay his head back down and grinned. Someone was getting their pole shined. He might as well join in, if his old pecker would cooperate, never a sure thing these days. He tucked his empty bottle between him and the seat back and went to work.
Fred was at last getting somewhere in his efforts when he heard the man let out a long, low groan followed by the distinctive sound of spitting.
“Eddie will bring our next shipment in on Friday.”
“That’s my run.”
“You’re too important to be an errand boy. You have to get in touch with the Pedrozas and set up a meeting.”
“I don’t know. A lot can go wrong in this plan.”
“If it goes right, we can get rid of two birds with one stone.”
“The Pedrozas and who?”
The house needed little coaxing to go up in flames.
One hundred years’ worth of weather and Texas heat had baked the clapboard house to a brittle shell. It stood more from habit and memory than the skill of the one-armed doughboy who built the house on his return to Stillwater from the Great War. Fifty years of heartbreak, shell shock, the Great Depression, another war, and old age, and the soldier had died alone, willing the house and land to a woman no one had ever heard of or bothered to try to find. The house and land lay fallow and forgotten, blocked from sight by bushes and brush until only Stillwater lifers knew a neat little Craftsman was once out Old Stillwater Highway, just past the city limits, near the river.
Volunteer firemen soaked the surrounding field with water, more con- cerned with wildfire prevention and saving the pastures next door than an old ramshackle house long rumored to be a haven for hobos, hippies, satanists, wetbacks, or meth heads, depending on the decade.
Stillwater Chief of Police Jack McBride, eight weeks on the job, knew none of the history as he stood back, watching the heat pulse like a heart- beat on the fringe of the fire’s aura. The mud-colored smoke hovered, as if reluctant to leave, before giving up and fading in the gray November dusk.
Jack turned from the smoldering house to see Sheriff Ann Newberry approaching. As if on cue, the house’s stone chimney collapsed into the scorched front yard.
“Ann, what brings you to Stillwater during rush hour?” He glanced at the steady stream of rubberneckers being directed past the scene by his two new deputies. “I hope you stopped by to take the case off my hands. It’s outside city limits, after all.”
“Doesn’t look like there’ll be much to investigate.”
“Think it was deliberate? A belated Halloween prank?”
Jack took a deep breath. He coughed. “Smell that?”
Ann lifted her nose. She was experienced enough to know the smell of burning flesh buried beneath wood and brush. “Christ. Let’s hope it’s dead animals we’re smelling.” Ann turned her head away and coughed. “Why I’m really here is to tell you we’ve finished with Pollard’s journals. I’ve brought you copies so you don’t have to drive to Yourkeville every night.”
Six weeks earlier, on suspicion of long-running corruption, Jack and Ann had searched former Stillwater Chief of Police Buck Pollard’s house. Their disappointment at not finding trunks of cash and a ledger detailing who paid what and when dissipated when they found county police files, long thought lost, boxes of journals written in Pollard’s hand going back forty years, and child porn on his computer. The next day, word had come from the Coast Guard: Pollard’s boat had been found in the Gulf of Mexico, capsized in a September storm. Pollard’s body had never been found.
“You didn’t need to do that,” Jack said.
“You like spending every night in the Yourkeville crime lab reading a dead man’s journals?”
“I mean I could’ve sent Starling down to get them.”
“Well, I wanted some fish at Mabel’s,” Ann said.
“I’m partial to her fried chicken.”
“You can’t go wrong with either.” A lull followed and Ann said, “So, tomorrow we tell the others.”
Because they weren’t sure how far and wide across Yourke County Buck Pollard’s corruption reached, only a handful of people knew about the search and seizure. Surprisingly, not a word had leaked. A silence that started out as a test of Jack’s senior deputy Sergeant Miner Jesson’s loyalty ended up being the confirmation that not everyone in Yourke County was beholden to Pollard. Though sometimes it felt like it. Tomorrow they would tell the other Yourke county police chiefs about what they’d found and hope they didn’t resent being kept in the dark for almost two months.
A tall, thin policeman with lank hair sticking out from under his Stetson walked over to Jack and Ann. “Sheriff. Chief.” Even though Jack saw him every day, Miner stuck out his hand. Jack wasn’t sure if it was a sign of respect for his position as chief of police or merely a habit of Miner’s, the bone-deep instillation of country manners into this thoroughly country man.
Miner looked at the house, which had burned itself out in record time. “Suppose it’s a blessing in disguise. The tweakers’ll have to find another hangout. Drove by Willow Street on my way over. There’s a ’84 GMC parked back there that’s registered to Paco Morales.”
“Name doesn’t ring a bell,” Jack said.
“He stays out of trouble. Been around for thirty years or more. Was legalized back in ’86. Was a regular at the Chevron but’s been working out at the country club for years now.”
“The same country club Joe Doyle owns?” Jack said.
“Willow Street?” Ann asked.
“Some’ll park back there and walk across the pasture so as to not park on the road, draw attention,” Miner said.
“This Morales ever been picked up for drugs?” Jack said.
“Not to my knowledge. I’ll run him to make sure,” Miner replied.
Ann shrugged. “I’ve never heard of him.”
The firemen roamed over the wreckage, checking for and dousing hot spots. Jack looked down at his square-toed dress shoes, his recent polish- ing shot to hell, and, not for the first time, realized he wasn’t dressed for real police work, or at least the kind he’d been doing in Stillwater, Texas, for the last two months.
As if reading Jack’s mind, Ann said, “There’s a uniform shop on the square in Yourkeville if you’re in the market. It’s gonna be hell getting the smoke out of that wool suit and silk tie. If you want, I can walk around the house so you don’t get your shoes dirty.”
“I’ll go,” Miner said.
When he was out of earshot, Ann asked Jack, “Debate starts soon. You gonna go?”
“I suppose I should, as chief, but I can’t vote,” he said. “Haven’t lived here long enough.”
“Do I need to ask who you’d vote for?”
The general consensus seemed to be Joe Doyle was about to be elected to the open city council seat. How it was even a contest, Jack didn’t understand. Joe’s opponent, Ellie Yourke Martin, was a pillar of the community. Joe Doyle was outwardly a successful businessman; behind the scenes, he was the biggest drug lord in Yourke County. It had only been a theory of Jack’s until a week ago when he came across an entry in one of Pollard’s journals that seemed to confirm it, justifying Jack spending the last six weeks holed up in the Yourkeville crime lab, pouring over the journals and tossing information to the DEA and FBI, who had been investigating Pollard for six months.
“Well, I sure as hell wouldn’t vote for Joe Doyle.”
It was unconscionable to Jack for a crook like Doyle to hold a position of power, even in an insignificant small East Texas town like Stillwater.
“Ellie doesn’t stand much of a chance, I hear,” Ann said.
“I hear the same.”
Ann paused and said, “Anything ever happen there, with Ellie?”
Jack jingled the keys and change in his pocket. Anything ever happen there? An easy question with a complicated answer.
The firemen at the back of the smoldering ruin raised their arms and waved them over as Jack’s phone rang. His wife’s picture flashed on the screen. He almost ignored it, but figured it was better to get it over with and answered as water sloshed over his shoes and seeped inside. “Shit.”
“Nice,” Julie said.
“I’m not cussing at you. What is it, Julie? I’m at a scene.”
“I thought we were going to the debate together.”
“Yes, really. Would you like to talk to the fireman standing beside me, putting out a fire?”
“I thought the whole point of hiring new people was so you didn’t work as much.”
Jack sighed. “I’m still the chief, Julie. I have to go. We’ll talk later.”
“Jack, don’t han—”
Jack clicked off and put the phone in his pocket.
“Problems at home?” Ann asked.
Jack shook his head. “Second verse, same as the first.”
Ann and Jack walked behind the wreckage and stopped next to Miner and the fire chief.
“Shit,” Ann said.
The fireman looked at Jack. “You seem to attract ’em, don’t you?”
The fireman walked off, leaving Jack, Ann, and Miner staring down at the charred, smoking remains of two bodies.