Story by Michelle Klump
Illustration by L.A.Spooner
The stench of stale grease hit Jerry Evans as he walked into the diner. A familiar scent, it still turned his stomach, providing a stark reminder of the difference between the way he should live his life and the way he did.
Not unattractive with his salt-and-pepper hair and weathered face, he was starting to carry more of a paunch than he liked. For now, it could still be contained by cinching in his belt tighter, but a few more greasy brown bags for dinner and he’d be on his way to pudgy. And that wouldn’t be good for business.
He was a few minutes early for his appointment and surveyed the empty room, choosing a spot by the window. He leaned back in his chair with a toothpick in his mouth and waited for his client to arrive. A chrome-colored Lexus sedan pulled into the parking lot moments later. With amusement, Jerry watched as the interior light flickered on and off, on and off, each time the man opened and closed his door, providing a visual clue to some inner conflict. The man slammed the car door, extinguishing the light one final time and strode across the parking lot to the diner. As the door chimed, he stiffened briefly, then looked around the room.
“You Jerry?” he asked, walking up to Jerry’s table.
Jerry gave him a nod.
“Nice to meet you,” the man said, offering his hand.
Jerry crossed his arms and remained silent.
The man shrugged and took a seat. “OK. So how does this work?”
“You can start by stating your business. I didn’t call this meeting.”
“Didn’t the other guy explain this already? He told me you’d meet me here and arrange everything.”
Jerry eyed the man, middle-aged, same as him, but with a head of wiry blonde hair, mussed enough to look unintentional, but with enough of a plastic sheen to assure Jerry it was not. His well-cut suit gave him the air of a successful businessman, but his nervous demeanor showed he was not much of a bluffer, at the poker table, or in a boardroom.
“What do you need done?”
“Well,” the man said, picking up a fork and twirling it on its end, “It’s my wife. I don’t know how to say this. I need her taken care of, you know? Gone.” He stared at a clock on the wall, avoiding Jerry’s eyes. “I know what you’re thinking. Why dead, right? Why not just divorce her? That’s not an option. I’m in debt, a lot of debt, and my girlfriend Chelsea said this is the only way.”
The speech had the cadence of an inner monologue, practiced a thousand times. The man glanced at Jerry as if to judge its effect. “I’m sorry. You don’t care about any of this stuff. You just want the details…”
“No, no,” Jerry said. “You’re right to consider this. It’s a serious thing you’re asking. This decision shouldn’t be made lightly.” He waved the waitress off as she came by to warm up his coffee. “You sure you want this?” he asked. “I don’t want regrets later that might come back on me. This has to be clean, or I won’t be part of it.”
“I’ve thought about it,” the man said. “If there was another way, I’d do it, but I’m out of options. This is it.”
Jerry let the sentence linger for a moment, then nodded. “Fair enough. Still, I’ll give you the night to decide. If it’s a go, meet me at the Astro Inn, room 501, at 8 p.m. tomorrow,” Jerry said. “Bring $5,000 in cash as your first installment.”
Jerry stood up and dropped a five for the waitress as he headed out the door. He didn’t look back as climbed into his industrial gray Impala—214,000 miles and still going strong. A second later he was on the road, phone in hand.
“He seems a little skittish, Charlie.”
“So, will he go ahead with it?”
“Not sure. Guess we’ll find out tomorrow.”
“Keep me posted.”
“I always do,” Jerry said.
— ♦♦♦ —
Fifteen minutes later, Jerry arrived back at home — a wood-frame bungalow in a forgotten pocket of the city. It stood, much as it had for 60 years, tucked behind railroad tracks and an industrial uniform cleaning service, where puffs of harsh dryer exhaust carried lint flecks that caught on his front porch slats.
Jerry bent down to pull a stray dandelion from his yard, but stopped short. His efforts were futile. It was obvious he needed to make changes, to spruce the house and himself up. But it seemed impossible, and he was tired.
Besides, that was always Angela’s thing. He shook his head, irritated that seven years after she had left he was still assigning her “things.”
He yanked the front door, bloated by the heat, and walked inside. Although trying to resist seeking her out, his gaze shifted to the photo on his end table. It was that red hair of hers.
“God-damn it,” he said, turning the picture frame face down on the table.
He spent the next hour packing his bags and making preparations. For this kind of job, everything had to be right. There was no room for error. Satisfied, he went to bed.
— ♦♦♦ —
It was still dark when Jerry sat on his driveway, waiting for the gate to open. His eye caught a light in the upstairs window next door — his neighbor’s silhouette, framed in the shadows.
At it again, judging me from on high, he thought.
His backyard seemed to attract most of the neighbor’s scorn, particularly since the neighbor’s bedroom window looked down into it. A jungle of downed palm fronds, dead leaves and branches, it made a cozy nest for the neighborhood vermin. He should feel bad about it. Those neighbors, newlyweds, wanted their first home to be perfect. Jerry understood that. He had been a new husband once when the biggest problem imaginable was how to shield his bride’s view from the rusting pickup across the street. Over time, the truck blended in with the scenery. Truth be told, so did Angela.
It wasn’t that he didn’t care. If you asked him, he could name a thousand reasons he loved her. And the other reasons, the ones words could never convey, he felt those too. But the job got in the way. Too many long nights, too many hours away trying to deaden his senses before coming back to reality.
When he wasn’t home, she had turned to her garden. She began with a small patch of land in the corner of the backyard, planting rosemary and mint. He imagined their soothing aromatherapy provided a salve for her lonely hours. Eventually, she took over the whole yard, planting an oasis of palms and tropical flowers. She nurtured her pride and joy, the blood orange tree, for four years, until it yielded the fruit whose ripe flesh matched her hair.
She spent all her time back there, planting and pruning, cutting and grafting. When it was perfect, and nothing else could be done, she left.
With her gone, Jerry found it easier to avoid it all together. He sent a silent apology to the face in the window before he backed his car down the driveway and onto the street.
— ♦♦♦ —
Within minutes, Jerry’s Impala was on the Interstate, heading south towards the Astro Inn. Built when the Astrodome was still the 8th wonder of the world, the hotel had tried to capitalize on its “Space City” setting. The name always amused Jerry, suggesting the cartoon dog from the Jetsons and other space-aged kitsch. But the reality of the hotel, grimy and forlorn, always brought him back to Earth, particularly on a random Tuesday, such as this, when the parking lot was filled with nothing but the rigs of long-haul truckers.
He checked in just after noon and made his preparations. By eight, when he heard the knock, he was more than ready.
“You made it,” he said, ushering the man into the room and offering him a seat at a side table near the bed.
Ripples of water formed in the glass on the table as the man’s knee bobbed up and down like a jackhammer. “I’m just going to say it—I don’t have the cash. I’ll get it, don’t worry. It’s just taking a little longer than I hoped.”
“You’re wasting my time. I was pretty clear before—no cash, no deal,” Jerry said.
“I’ll have it by Friday, which is perfect because I figured Saturday would be a great day for you to do it. I was thinking car wreck. You could do that right?”
“I don’t do theoretical discussions, I perform a service, for which I expect payment up front.”
“I’m good for it. Seriously. I just thought we might go over some of the details now. We can do a quick handoff of the cash on Friday, and you can take care of my wife on Saturday. I’m leaving Friday night on a business trip. I’ll be over in Galveston.” The man’s voice gained strength as he recited details, like the eager student who thinks he will ace the test. “It’s a three-day conference, and I’ve booked a hotel room through Sunday night. There’s a healthy expense budget for entertainment, so an alibi with lots of witnesses shouldn’t be a problem.”
“And what about your wife?” Jerry asked.
“She visits her mom every Saturday at a nursing home up in Beaumont. She leaves a few hours before lunch every Saturday like clockwork so she can get there in time to eat with the old lady.”
“Sounds like you’ve planned this out. No second thoughts?”
Jerry paused, holding the man’s gaze for a silent minute.
“OK. Here’s what will happen next—We’ll meet right back here on Friday night, and you will have the money. Once you pay up, you’ll go on your business trip and you’ll get a call that your wife is dead. You’ll rush home. After things die down and you get that first installment of life insurance money, you’ll deliver another $5,000 to this address,” he said, handing him a slip of paper with another address and a phone number. “If the money doesn’t arrive, I will come collecting. Now, I need your address, and a picture, so I can identify the target.”
“The details are here,” the man said, pulling a packet out of his bag. “I’ve got the address, a photo, her license plate information and the address of her mother’s nursing home.”
“That should be all I’ll need. That, and the money, of course.”
“You’ll have it Friday.”
“I’d better,” Jerry said, showing him to the door.
— ♦♦♦ —
Once the man’s car started, Jerry waited another 10 minutes before heading to the closet and switching off the camera.
He picked up his cell phone and pressed the first name on his favorites list. After a few rings, a gruff voice came on the line.
“So, how’d it go, Jerry? We have enough to nail him?”
“He didn’t bring the cash. He showed up in another of his tailored suits with his greasy pomade, trying to look like a million bucks, and he says he can’t even manage to pull together a measly $5,000 for a down payment.”
“So, we’ll have to keep working him. Do you think he really wants to go through with it, or is he just dipping his toes in?”
“We’ve got another appointment for Friday night. I guess we’ll find out what he’s made of then.”
“All right, Jerry, keep me posted. Hopefully, we nail him on Friday.”
“Later, Charlie,” he said, hanging up his phone.
The two of them had been working these kinds of cases for four years, ever since Jerry’s official retirement from the police force. Any time the cops got wind of a wife who wanted to get rid of her husband, or a businessman who wanted to eliminate a partner, or a child wanting to kill his parents for an inheritance, Charlie would filter the calls to Jerry, who would meet with them and listen to their plans for murder. His job was to figure out who was serious and who was just blowing off steam. Jerry tried to gather enough evidence to put his “clients” away, all while convincing them he was the right man to do the job.
Over the years, Charlie and Jerry had handled over 30 cases and sent 25 of them to jail. It was a good partnership — they worked well together.
Jerry hated it when the cases dragged out like this. The delayed payment meant a delayed arrest because after all, it’s not a crime to want someone dead, or even to talk about it. But paying money to a hitman proved intent and would be enough for the police to make a case.
Jerry poured himself a drink and fingered the envelope left by the man.
“May as well find out whose life we’re about to turn upside down,” he said to the empty room.
That was always the moment he dreaded—telling the victim that someone in their life wanted them dead.
He eased up the flap of the envelope, sliding the contents out onto the table. In an effort to preserve fingerprints, he moved everything only slightly. Slipped in behind some papers, he saw it. Just the briefest flash of red hair. His stomach felt the news first, followed by his breath, and then his heart, which pounded in his ears.
The photo showed a woman stroking an orange and white tabby. She was a little older but had the same face, the same smile.
He slammed his fist against the table, not registering the pain.
I’ll kill him, he thought. I should have kept tabs on her, should have known about this asshole, should never have let her marry him.
But she had made him promise — her last request — that he did not search for her. It would be easier that way, she had said.
It hadn’t been, but he’d followed her wishes anyway. He thought he owed her at least that.
In his mind, Jerry imagined how it all might have been different. He had tried to show her his love with little gestures over the years, simple things like making her coffee every morning, or doing the dishes before she had the chance. But the little gestures hadn’t been enough to counteract his day-to-day absence, both in body and in spirit. Maybe one or two grand gestures could have done the job and she wouldn’t have left, and none of this would have happened.
He hit the table again, feeling less substantial than he had in years.
— ♦♦♦ —
The next morning, after he knew the man would already be at his office, Jerry parked in front of a large brick house on the north side of town. Rose bushes, bursting with blooms, lined the walkway, telling him he had found the right place.
He knocked on the door. After a few minutes, it opened only as wide as the chain that locked it from the inside.
“Jerry?” The door muffled the surprise in her voice.
“Can you let me in?”
Angela opened the door wider and looked at him.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” he said, looking her up and down. Even in a gray sweatshirt and yoga pants, she looked beautiful to him.
“Come in,” she said, pointing near some couches in the corner.
He chose a brown leather recliner instead — a match to the one in his own living room.
“You still have this old chair,” he said, patting the arm. He sucked his gut in at that moment, self-conscious at her gaze.
“What can I do for you, Jerry?” she asked.
“This will sound odd after all these years, but I need to ask you about your husband. How well do you know him?”
He could sense the long, dramatic sigh, even before she opened her mouth. It was one of those tricks of a long marriage — you learned to anticipate.
“Jerry, I’m not doing this. I will not talk about Craig with you.” She paused for a few moments, looking him up and down, and her anger eased into pity. “Look, I want to be nice here. I have nothing against you anymore, but I don’t want to waste your time or mine.”
“Angela, it’s not what you think.”
“There you go, thinking for me again — some habits are hard to break, I guess. But as usual, you’re wrong. I don’t know why you’re here. So why don’t you spell it out for me.” She practically spat out the last sentence, her anger going from zero back up to 60 in a matter of a few moments.
Stung by her words, Jerry tried not to show it. “I’ll get straight to the point. I’m here on official business,” he said, standing up from the chair to face her.
She had been bracing for something, but not that. Her face was blank until the potential meaning of the words hit her.
“Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God.” The mantra started out soft and slow, before building up into a frenzy as she grabbed her purse from the table and dug for her cell phone. “Craig! Where is he? What’s wrong? Where is he, Jerry?”
“Easy Angel, it’s nothing like that,” he said, slipping into his long-ago endearment for her. He put his hand on her shoulder. “Listen, Angela, there’s no easy way to say this, but Craig’s not in danger — you are. Your husband, he … he tried to hire me to kill you.”
Angela turned around and slapped his face, hard.
“You’re pathetic. Seven years later, and your pitiful ploy to get to me is to make up a bullshit story about Craig?”
“Get the hell out of my house.” She stomped across the room to the front door, wrestling with the knob until it turned under the pressure of her fury.
“I can prove everything. He’s going out of town on a business trip this weekend, right?” Jerry pulled an envelope from his jacket and flung it onto the coffee table. “Here’s a picture of you, and a photo of your car. He told me you take a weekly trip to visit your mom in Beaumont. He even drew a map of the route you take.”
She let her hand drop from the doorknob but made no further move to face him.
“Angela,” he said, reaching for her arm, wanting to maintain a connection between the two of them. “He wanted me to get you this Saturday while he’s gone so he has an alibi.”
She swatted his fingers off her arm.
“Why you are pulling this now. Why couldn’t you leave me alone? You managed that pretty well when we were married.”
“I’m not your angel! Get out of my house!”
Jerry pulled a DVD out of his front jacket pocket. He’d known it would probably come to this, but he had wanted to protect her from the next few moments.
“You don’t need to believe me. He said he’s doing it for Chelsea.”
The name froze her. She shook her head.
“There’s got to be some mistake. He said he was done with her. We’ve been so good lately—Now I know you’re wrong.”
For an uncomfortable moment, Jerry struggled to put the DVD in the player.
As the image of his ex-wife’s husband came in to view, Jerry steeled himself for what he was sure would happen next. He expected Angela to throw the nearest object against the wall, to scream obscenities, or hit him. What he did not expect as he took a sideways glance at her, was to see her collapse onto the couch, tears streaming down her face.
“I don’t understand,” she sobbed. “Why would he do this?”
“I don’t know, honey,” he said, moving over to sit down next to her. “But the next question is — what do you want me to do?”
She looked up, confused. “What do you mean? Aren’t you going to arrest him?”
He reached over and wiped a tear from her face, touching the curve of her cheekbone beneath his fingers.
“That’s one option. But listen, Angela, I owe you a lot. We can play this any way you want.” He paused, making sure she understood what he was saying.
She held his gaze, searching his eyes for an answer, but turned away before she found one. “I need to be alone right now.”
“I’ll see myself out.” He closed the door softly as he left.
— ♦♦♦ —
At home, he paced. He righted Angela’s picture on his end table, needing to see her face as he cataloged his options. Leaning back in his recliner, he picked up the photo and cradled it in his hands. It was one of those cheap frames from the dollar store, with the silver that rubs off almost immediately. But Angela had never needed ornaments to look classy. Jerry touched the glass, remembering the impression of her cheekbone beneath his fingertip.
He fell asleep in his chair and dreamed of the beach. He and Angela had loved it in winter, when it was quiet and empty and they could walk the sand in sweaters, enjoying the chill. In his dream, the ringing sounded like seagulls, so he was disoriented when he answered the phone.
“I’m freaking out Jerry. My wife just called. I didn’t answer, but she left a voicemail saying she needed to see me right away. That she knew about Chelsea and everything else. What am I going to do?”
“Calm down. Where are you now?”
“I’m at a pay-phone outside of my office. I can’t calm down. She knows something is up — we’ve got to speed this whole thing up. I can’t take it anymore.”
“There’s no way she knows anything — at least not on my end. Is there any chance she found out about Chelsea from someone else?”
“Maybe — I’m not sure. We’ve been careful. I didn’t think Angela knew anything.”
It was the first time Jerry had heard him use her name, and it pissed him off.
“Listen — the first thing you need to do is dump that cell phone. You lost it and never got that phone call, OK? The second thing, come see me. We’ve got to figure out a plan ‘b’ real quick. You can come by my place. No one will see you here, and you can get back before anyone notices you’re gone. But listen—I’m still going to need the cash up front.”
“Fine. I’ll move some things around and just take it from my company. Before they notice it’s gone, I should have the insurance money to pay it back.”
“I don’t care how you get it. Just have it with you, or the deal is off.”
An hour later, Jerry opened his bloated front door. Craig must have sped to make such good time. He seemed calmer than he had sounded on the phone.
“You weren’t kidding about this place being isolated. I’ve lived in Houston my whole life and never knew this neighborhood existed.”
“Come in, Craig,” Jerry said, closing the door behind him.
Craig walked into the front room, halting when he saw the photo on the end table. He heard the pistol’s hammer click as he turned around.
“That’s Angela in her younger days when we were first married. Beautiful, isn’t she?” Jerry said.
“What the hell is this? Who are you?” Craig’s face was ashen as he reached back to grab the doorknob. Before his fingers even touched the brass, Jerry waved him away.
“You don’t want to leave so soon, do you, Craig? You just got here.”
Craig’s eyes darted around the room, seeming to weigh his options. “So you’re Angela’s piece of shit first husband. Oh, she told me all about you—just another loser cop who couldn’t stay sober enough to tend to his wife’s needs.” He made a few half-steps closer to the door, keeping his eyes on the gun. “But hey, you want her back? You can have her. Just take her off my hands. I’ll even pay you the $5,000 like we planned. I always found her to be kind of a frigid bit—“
Jerry fired one round into his head.
Lowering the gun to his side, Jerry looked at the man bleeding on his floor.
“What a friggin’ mess,” he said.
Jerry dragged the man into the nearby bathroom, heaving his body into the tub. He closed the shower curtain, not wanting to see Craig’s face any longer.
He filled a bucket with warm water and soap and sponged the hallway clean. Pulling gloves on his hands, Jerry grabbed Craig’s keys, wanting to get the Lexus out of the neighborhood before 5pm, when his few neighbors started trickling back home from work.
Jerry drove the Lexus for a few miles before parking it on the east side of the Heights, near an old used car lot that served as the pick-up point for buses making the daily trip from Houston to Mexico. He left the keys in the car and walked to a nearby bus stop, where he caught the number 34 home.
In his backyard, Jerry opened his storage shed and grabbed the pruning shears. For the next three hours, he slaved away, trimming trees, removing limbs and brown palm fronds, raking leaves and pulling weeds, trying to restore order after years of neglect.
With the yard looking better, Jerry turned his attention to the raised garden bed in the shade of the orange tree. He removed most of the dirt. Then, struggling slightly under the weight of the rolled-up shower curtain, Jerry laid his burden in the hole and filled the dirt back in. Over top, he spread a fresh layer of topsoil from a bag in the garden shed. He found Angela’s collection of heirloom seeds and planted neat rows of carrots, tomatoes, and squash over top.
Finished, he looked around, satisfied, and turned his gaze up at his neighbor’s empty window. He tipped an invisible hat and went inside.
Jerry grabbed a glass from the cabinet and filled it with ice and water, leaving it to cool for a minute before gulping it down. He walked into his front room and picked up the frame on the end table, taking one last long look, before packing it away in the bottom of his desk drawer under some papers.
When Friday came, Jerry drove back to the Astro Inn as planned, as if to meet Craig. At 8 p.m., there was a knock at his hotel room door. Heart thumping, Jerry opened the door to Charlie.
“Don’t think your pal is going to show tonight,” he said, stepping into the room and taking a seat at the side table.
“Oh, yeah? Why not?” Jerry asked, trying to keep the panic from rattling his voice.
“Got a call from patrol – they found his car crashed and abandoned somewhere off of Gessner. When they ran the plates, it was registered to his company. They started looking into your man’s last movements and turns out he made some unusual withdraws from the company bank account. He seems to have left with a wad of the company’s cash.”
“How about the wife – anyone check on her?” Jerry asked.
“Yeah, she’s fine. She last talked to him on Wednesday afternoon when he said he was heading off on a business trip and wouldn’t be reachable for a few days. Says she hasn’t heard from him since. Phone records seem to bear her out.”
“So, where is he? He didn’t disappear off the face of the earth?”
“Patrol boys traced the crashed car to some punk kid who took it off on a joy ride. Got a lucky break – the kid’s dad called it in. Kid said he found it parked near one of those Mexican bus stops out off Airline. Seems like maybe he skipped town with the cash. Anyway, I came out here on the off chance he might show up but looks like he’s standing you up. I didn’t want you spending the rest of your night in this roach motel. Pack up and head home.”
“Thanks, man,” Jerry said, grabbing his bag from the nightstand and heading out the door.
“There was one weird thing though, Jerry,” Charlie called out after him. “That kid – said he saw a tall dude with gray hair walking away from the neighborhood Wednesday afternoon. Said the white guy stuck out like a sore thumb in that part of town. Made me think of you. You don’t live too far from that bus stop, do you?”
“Sure, it’s near Teotihuacan – great tacos at that joint. But I haven’t been there in a few weeks. Anyway, I spent all Wednesday afternoon getting the garden back in order. You should come check it out sometime.”
“Oh, yes, the famous garden,” Charlie said, walking Jerry to his car. “You still have that blood orange tree? Save me a couple when they ripen – they make a helluva margarita.”
“Sure thing, Charlie,” Jerry said. He closed the door to his gray impala and headed home.
— ♦♦♦ —
Madeline Switch was not your run-of-the-mill PI. The fact that she was an African American female working in New Orleans was only the first thing that made her stand out. Although Mr. Hendricks was somewhat taken aback when they first met, he had to hire her. She wasn’t keen to take the job, but the nature of what was taken from him changed her mind.