2020 Awards Consideration Post

If you’re voting for crime fiction awards in 2020, I’d love for you to consider my short story “Mercenary” from the anthology Murder A-Go-Gos edited by Holly West. I think this is the best short story I have ever written and think it’s themes about race and opioid abuse and masculinity are very timely.  Other people worked really hard to publish this story as well and I would love for their support and contributions to be rewarded and validated. The full text of the story is below.

If you’d like to read more about my process writing the story, I did a Two Pages feature over at Art Taylor’s blog.

If you’d like an objective opinion on how awesome the story is, Greg Herren reviewed it. He loathes me, so if he liked the story you know it must be good.

If you’d like to buy a copy of the anthology to read the story and decide for yourself, the publisher has you covered (the ebook is onsale for $2.99).

 

MERCENARY
By Bryon Quertermous

“They asked for my dental records,” Lodi Meyers said, holding back tears, “so they can identify my body if he kills me.”

Andre Taylor sat across from her at a diner on the outskirts of downtown Detroit near the old City Airport where urban decay was still in force and gentrification was barely a rumor.

“You really want to talk about this now. With me?”

“I don’t have any other options,” she said, the tears giving way to an angry flush across her cheeks. “They’re putting together this moronic safety plan for me while insisting there’s not enough evidence to keep him in prison.”

Andre flexed the fingers of his beefy, gnarled hands and picked up his coffee cup without taking a drink. The bleached white of the cup contrasted with the dark black skin of his hands that were shaking enough to splash a bit of the freshly poured coffee onto the table.

“I’m really not the person you should be talking to about this.”

Lodi reached her hand across the table and clutched Andre’s wrist.

“That’s exactly why I’m asking.”

Andre managed to take a drink of his coffee without spilling it after a few more tries.

“I’m doing good now,” he said. “Please don’t do this.”

“Seems like you need a splash of something in your coffee to settle your nerves.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Hrmmph,” she said. “Not like I offered you a bottle of pills.”

Andre put his coffee cup down and stood up.

“This was a mistake,” he said.

Lodi grabbed his wrist again, this time more aggressively.

“There’s a reason you showed up even though this is a terrible idea. You want to make sure I haven’t told anyone what you did.”

Andre twisted his hand out of her grip then took out his wallet and dropped several bills from it on the table in front of Lodi.

“I’m scared to death, Andre, and I’m desperate. I don’t want to die. I don’t want my daughter to wake up from her coma and find out I was murdered by her father.”

“You made your money off my son’s death and moved on without a thought. I’d take a daughter in a coma over a son in the ground any day.”

“If it makes you feel any better, the state never paid me for treating you.”

“Which treatment was that? The truckloads of Oxy you sent me home with for my back pain, or the truckloads of Xanax you prescribed after my son overdosed on the Oxy?”

Their eyes were locked, and Lodi was about to speak when her cell phone blasted a grating version of Spanish Flea that turned the attention of everyone in the diner on them. Lodi cursed repeatedly as she dug around in her purse, finally pulling an old flip phone out and answering it with a snarl.

She nodded a few times, said yes a few times, and mumbled a few other platitudes before finally hanging up and throwing the phone back into her purse.

“I have a friend who did something stupid and needs bail,” she said. “Can you take me over to the jail in Westland and write a note for him?”

Andre sighed deeply and picked the bills up from the table and put them back in his wallet.

“You drive.”

* * *

The police station in Westland, Michigan was across the street from a mediocre chain steak house and between a skate park and karaoke bar. The city itself was a mostly white, mostly lower middle class blue-collar suburb and the police station reflected that aesthetic – aggressively bland with heavy doses of unearned gravitas. Lodi and Andre had remained quiet on the half hour drive to the police station, but as they waited in the lobby for an officer to come and talk with them, Lodi picked up the conversation where they left off.

“The attorney general is a yutz,” she said, standing with her back to Andre, looking out the large window on the parking lot. “The only reason he agreed to see me and talk about keeping Teddy in prison is because of all the media pressure.”

Andre was fiddling with a metal box the size of a cereal box that had a clipboard on top and all of the paperwork needed to write a bail bond inside, if he could get the case open.

“You can vouch for this guy, right?” Andre asked, through grunts as he pulled at the edges of the case. “I’ve had a bad run lately of doing—”

“I just told you he’s a yutz. Aren’t you paying attention?”

Andre dropped the case to the floor and the sound echoed up to the top of the vaulted ceiling and through the plastic chairs. Lodi jumped and spun into Andre, tripping over the case that was finally open.

“Sorry,” he said. “I was talking about your friend Greg.”

“Oh, yeah, he was my best friend growing up. Nice guy, sweet really, but he’s been a mess since they found his kid’s body…well, you know.”

Andre grabbed Lodi by the shoulders, precariously close to her neck, and pulled her toward his face.

“You’re kidding me? Why did you bring me here?”

“He needs a bond, you write bonds,” Lodi said, leaning in even closer toward Andre. “And I don’t want you to forget what I know.”

Before Andre could speak again, they were interrupted by the booming sound of a security door from the other side of the room unlocking and opening. They quickly separated as a stocky well-tanned guy dressed in black cargo pants and a black polo shirt with a sewn on badge with the word Detective underneath it appeared in the doorway.

“You here for Greg Neil?”

Andre nodded and he and the detective huddled off in one corner of the room briefly, out of earshot from Lodi, before the detective returned back behind the steel door.

“I can pay you,” Lodi said, not moving from her spot staring out the window. “I have plenty of money and no way to exchange it in any way for my safety.”

“Money,” Andre said, then he grunted.

“All these barbaric sounds,” Lodi said. “Are you trying to threaten me or are you playing dumb so I don’t want your help?”

“I’m not going to talk about this here. I’m not going to talk about it with you anywhere.”

She nodded and pointed toward the door the detective had come through.

“They’ll be coming out that door any minute now and I’m sure Greg and, hey, maybe even the detective, would love to talk about that night back in October when—”

“I don’t want your money,” Andre said.

“I’m not in the pill business anymore, but if that old injury is getting to you, I can recommend—”

“I want my money.”

“Pardon?”

“The money they took from me.”

“Oh. Uh, well, okay. I can get to the bank this afternoon—”

“It was in my pop’s old briefcase. I want it back.”

The buzzing lock and echoing door interrupted them again and Lodi felt the pit of her stomach drop. Andre didn’t seem panicked at all.

“I can’t exactly ask her where she hid it. Guess we’ll just have to talk to Greg about all of this and see how it settles out.”

“Tell them anything you want. Maybe I go to jail, maybe I’m seen as a hero. But your husband will still be—”

She nodded again, smiling desperately, hoping to convey her agreement without saying anything out loud. Andre went to the detective and Lodi went to Greg. He was wearing blue jeans and a DuckTales t-shirt. His face was scraped up and his hands were swollen and bruised.

“We talked about your temper,” she said. “You were going to—”

“Not now, please. I just want to go home.”

“You can stay with me tonight and tomorrow we can figure this out.”

Greg nodded and kept quiet while Lodi glanced over at Andre and the detective. After fifteen minutes or so, everyone gathered at the center of the lobby and the detective explained what was going on and gave Greg a lecture about his responsibilities while on bail. Andre gave him a vaguely threatening list of consequences for skipping out on bail, Lodi assured everyone he would be a good citizen and then suggested they go to the steakhouse across the street for dinner.

* * *

Lodi slept fitfully that night with broken shards of nightmares piercing her dreams as she tried to picture a way forward that didn’t end with her violent death. She woke up after midnight with a blast of heat running through her body from the core of her chest to her finger tips and the tips of her ears. Her muscles seized up and she thought she was having a heart attack, but quickly realized she needed to throw up instead. The light was on in the master bathroom and she almost threw up on Greg, who was sitting on the toilet in his boxer shorts watching a video on his phone, before she changed her path and heaved in the bathtub instead. Greg was crying, but handed her a towel to wipe her mouth off with anyway.

“Why do you do that to yourself?” she asked, as she stood up when she was done.

“I didn’t want to wake you up. Sorry about the light.”

“The video,” she said. “I thought you were going to delete it.”

“His smile is just so goofy,” he said. “How can I delete that?”

“Still seems weird to me he went to Chuck E. Cheese for his 11th birthday.”

“You know how he was.”

She did. Zack had been a sensitive kid that she was eternally afraid her daughter Sammy was going to corrupt. After Lodi’s troubles with her pain clinic and the investigation from the feds that scared her straight, she’d seen an increased aggression and distance in Sammy that seemed to have reached fever pitch in the days before Sammy and Zack were shot in Detroit.

Zack was dead; Sammy was in a coma; And Greg was watching five-year-old videos on his phone in the middle of the night to cope.

When she was done rinsing her mouth out and washing her hands, Lodi reached over her head for the cabinet where she kept the antacid. She caught Greg staring at her and realized her shirt had pulled up and she wasn’t wearing anything else. A feeling of vulnerability and exposure she’d never felt in all of the years she’d know Greg washed over her. She quickly dropped her arms to her side and went back to the bedroom to pull on a pair of stained yoga pants and a fleece jacket.

“I have to go,” she said. “Lock up when you leave.”

* * *

The first thing her mother asked when Lodi showed up at her door was why she wasn’t wearing any underwear. Lodi looked down at the yoga pants she’d thrown on and realized how threadbare and see-through they were.

“I need to talk to you about Teddy,” she said.

Her mother waved her in but didn’t move out of the small foyer of the house. Her mother still lived in the same three-bedroom bungalow downriver in Southgate Lodi grew up in even though she could afford someplace nicer. Growing up, the house had always felt cozy and secure to Lodi. But as she aged out of her innocence and her mother grew more close-minded and paranoid, the house felt claustrophophic and cloistered.

They stood close together for several awkward seconds before Lodi worked up enough courage to ask for a drink. Her mother cracked a deceptive smile and led Lodi to the kitchen where she pulled down a bottle of whiskey with a custom label that had Lodi and Teddy’s names in script and the words “spirit animals” in a bolder font underneath. They’d given them out as gifts at their rehearsal dinner. Her mother poured a generous amount in two plastic tumblers and handed one to Lodi.

“Aren’t you hilarious,” Lodi said.

“To irony.”

Lodi tilted her glass toward her mother in a mock toast then took a long drink and sat down at the sturdy, but old table in the sturdy, but old kitchen. Her mother leaned against the stove and sighed.

“They’re cutting him loose in a week and I don’t know what to do,” Lodi said. “I can’t leave Sammy while she’s in a coma and I can’t exactly take her with me.”

“I heard you on NPR talking about him,” her mother said. “You sounded a bit whiny. But I think everybody on NPR sounds whiny.”

There was a pause, Lodi sensed her mother wanted to say something else so she gave her the space to say it.

“Did he really try to hire six people to kill you?”

Lodi nodded.

“That they know of. Those kids he hung out with were sneaking around the back shed the other night, getting the dog all riled up and scaring me half to death.”

“Teddy was a mentor to those boys,” her mother said. “You make it sound like they trolled around like school chums.”

“My house is supposed to be on a priority list with the police, but when I called 911 it took them more than an hour to get there.”

Her mother sighed again – more dramatically this time – and took another drink.

“Because you called 911 on a roving gang of teenager like some paranoid housewife. I’m sure if there’s ever real danger they’ll—”

“If there’s ever real danger, they’ll find my body chopped up in a trunk somewhere and everyone will feel so bad about it and wonder how they could have missed all of the signs.”

Her mother seemed to hold back a third sigh and, instead, led Lodi up the narrow staircase to her old bedroom. It was an odd shaped room that Lodi always believed was meant to be a walk-in closet off the master bedroom rather than a standalone bedroom. Her mother had converted it to a library and craft room after being widowed almost a decade ago. Lodi stood in the doorway while her mother weaved through the piles of books and fabric swatches on the floor to a small armoire against the far wall. Her mother stood on her tiptoes and felt around until she pulled down a small black safe that Lodi immediately recognized.

“No way,” she said. “The wedding bottle was bad enough, but you’re not waving that gun of his around while I’m here.”

“Technically, it’s your gun,” her mother said. “He got it for you as a—”

“Other girls got diamonds and pearls and vacuum cleaners as wedding day gifts. I got a pawn shop handgun from an increasingly delusional apocalypse prepper on my wedding day.”

“Instead of getting all worked up and pissy, why don’t you take a breath and –”

“You people and your guns,” she said, spinning away from her mother and storming down the stairs. “It was a mistake coming here.”

“Wait,” her mother yelled, descending the stairs faster than one would have guessed of a nearly 70-year-old woman. “I’m sorry.”

“What?”

Lodi racked her brain trying to remember the last time she’d heard her mother apologize for anything.

“You’re right. It’s creepy. I hate having it in my house.”

“But you want me to take it?”

“I’ll feel better if you have it. I know the odds are slim and you’re not exactly Annie Oakley, but…”

Lodi was still disoriented from her mother’s apology, which was the only way she could explain to herself why she took the gun and waved as she left.

* * *

Andre met Lodi at a gun range in Eastpointe after lunch the next day. Until the early 1990s, the city had been known as East Detroit, but the crime waves of the 80s and the economic apocalypse of the 90s inspired town leaders to drop the Detroit name and attempt to leech off of the prestige and safety of the Grosse Pointe areas. It never quite seemed to work though. The area was still mostly run down and while it never suffered from the epidemic of random murders and drug crime Detroit endured, it made up for it with a series of gruesome and headline-grabbing murders every few years.

If anyone passing by missed the small sign advertising a gun range, the brand-new brick building across from an abandoned motel and a two-story strip mall on Eight Mile could easily be mistaken for a CVS or a Rite-Aid. Lodi pulled in next to the only other vehicle in the lot, a rusty former police cruiser she knew was Andre’s work car. The gun case her mother gave her was sitting on the seat and Lodi ran her fingers over the series of stickers Teddy had added to the safe over the years they were together.

The stickers were a road map of Teddy’s progression from gun enthusiast and conspiracy theory hobbyist to full-blown paranoid doomsday prepper. A green sticker with the Ka-Bar logo over a toxic waste symbol proclaiming it as the official knife of the zombie apocalypse dominated the center, she’d put that one on when it came in the mail a month or so after their first anniversary. A few smaller stickers for survival food and water products filled in the spaces leading to a black and white InfoWars sticker and an Alex Jones for President sticker. She peeled those two stickers off and threw them on the ground then went inside. Andre was already on the range working through a series of handguns on a table off to his right when Lodi found him. She set the gun safe on the table and shrugged when he saw her pull out the battered old revolver and laughed at her.

“I don’t easily admit my mother’s right,” she said. “But in this case, she might be less wrong than normal when she says I should how to use this.”

“You bring a gun into your house, you best be prepared to shoot it. And shoot to kill. Ain’t no video game piece you can shoot at knee caps and elbows with.”

“Center mass, I know. I’ve used a gun from time to time, even carried one regularly back when I was in the pill game.”

“Putting a bullet in the man who fathered your baby is different than shooting some punk trying to lift your stash.”

“I didn’t come to you for counseling,” she said, rummaging through the pile of ammo boxes, looking for compatible rounds. “I came for information.”

“Information…right.”

Lodi snapped six rounds into the revolver and hip checked Andre out of the way.

“Believe what you want about my intentions,” she said. “but I don’t want trouble. I want to keep my head down and live my life and care for my daughter and try to do good.”

Andre stifled a groan, but she ignored him and pulled off three shots that all went wildly off target. She made some self-deprecating comments about needing more practice, and twisted the gun around in her hands, looking at it like she was evaluating a piece of jewelry looking for a flaw. A few times she came close to pointing the gun at her own face, and Andre stepped toward her and swatted at her hands.

“Much as I’d like to see you shoot your head off, I’d be suspect number one so maybe don’t point that thing at yourself?”

“I know what I’m doing, Andre. I don’t need you explaining how to—”

She fired twice more, seemingly without realizing it, and barely glanced the target. Her final shot jammed. With a string of curses and spittle, she flung the gun onto the concrete floor of the range and kicked over the table next to Andre.

“Goddam it, goddammit dammit dammit. I’m sick of this fucking gun and this fucking city and this fucking country and this fucking life. I wish that piece of shit was here with me right now so I could snap his fucking neck and beat his head into the ground until it popped off.”

She continued like that for another ten minutes and when she finally calmed down, she looked at the mess she’d made then looked at Andre. She expected another lecture, but he just helped her clean up the fallen table and the spilled ammo without saying a thing.

“What am I going to do?” she asked softly when they were done.

“I asked around, and it’s not good news. The AG and the county prosecutor put together a package that should keep him locked up for another decade or so at least.”

Lodi perked up and smiled.

“That’s good. Right?”

Andre shook his head.

“Teddy’s been pushing hard for someone to take you out before the case is heard and it’s only a matter of time before he finds someone dumb enough to try it and lucky enough to succeed.”

“Can’t we freeze his money, so he can’t pay these guys, or get them to snitch on each other or something?”

“We can try, but all it takes is for him to find the one moron who wants fame on the outside more than money and game over.”

“So that’s it? I give up and leave my daughter so I can go into hiding like a coward? What if he goes after her?”

Andre looked her dead square in the eyes but didn’t say anything.

“Even if I could shoot that gun and manage to hit something,” Lodi continued. “I can’t take it to the hospital with me or carry it with me while I’m at work. And if he’s got some jailbird I don’t know coming after me, am I supposed to shoot everybody who comes near me? I can’t live like that.”

Andre maintained eye contact and continued his silence. She was going to have to come right out and say what she wanted. But that was almost as hard as the thought of shooting Teddy herself.

Man comes into her house and tries to kill her or her daughter and she fights back, that’s self-defense. That’s bravery. But if she took the initiative and found some desperate lifer to strangle that same man in the shower or gut him with a shiv in the yard before he could hurt her, she’d be a murderer.

But she’d be safe.

She imagined the look on Teddy’s face mid-attack when he would finally realize what was happening and she smiled.

Andre nodded.

“I’ll get you whatever you need,” she said. “And I’ll pay extra if they make him suffer.”

* * *

A week later, Lodi was at the hospital when Sammy came out of her coma. After a brief reunion and a few hugs and kisses, Lodi was ushered out of the room by the nurses and she wandered toward the cafeteria for a celebratory latte. She was met along the way by an awkward looking guy wearing a suit that was so bland and cheap it might as well have been advertised as a police special. He matched her step for step but didn’t say anything right away. Lodi had been waiting for this visit, but expected they would come to her house. Once they reached the cafeteria, Lodi stopped and looked at the guy.

“Can I help you?”

He put his hand on her shoulder and pushed her gently off to the side of the room where it would be harder for anyone to hear their conversation.

“I want to help you,” he said. “If I can.”

Andre had been MIA since their talk at the gun range and she figured he would do his thing and eventually she would hear from someone that Teddy was dead and she’d breathe a sigh of relief while maintaining an acceptable facade of mourning for the father of her child. This was a wrinkle she didn’t expect and it made her nervous.

“I think you have me confused with—”

“I’m with the state police and I work with the department of corrections when something happens to one of their inmates that looks like an inside job.”

“Ok…”

“Your husband was killed last night and my bosses believe you hired the man who did it.”

“Shit,” she said, realizing too late she’d said it out loud.

“Can we talk somewhere more private?”

“Am I under arrest?”

“I really don’t think we should talk out here in the open.”

Lodi looked around, to see if anyone else was watching them or if anyone else was around who would stop her if she ran, but she didn’t see any better options and if he really wanted to arrest her she figured he would have done it already, so she asked him for ID then motioned for him to follow her.

* * *
“I only have a few minutes,” he said, as Lodi examined his badge and ID card, “I’m supposed to be down in the morgue watching an autopsy, but I feigned nausea and skipped out.”

“Then talk, Inspector White. Tell me how much trouble I’m in.”

They were in a small room designated as a prayer/meditation room, but Lodi had used it a few times for private phone calls when she visited Sammy and no one had bothered her about it.

“They have a lot.” White said. “I haven’t seen it all, but they have some video, some pictures, and a lot of audio.”

“He set me up,” she said, again out loud instead of in her head.

Your husband?”

“No. Sorry. I keep thinking these things are in my head but they’re coming…never mind that. Can I trust you?”

“I haven’t arrested you yet, have I?”

“Doesn’t mean this isn’t a set up.”

Inspector White took his badge case back from Lodi and avoided eye contact with her while he put it away.

“I always thought I was going to be a writer growing up,” he said. “Or maybe an English teacher if that didn’t work out. Never once thought about being a cop.”

“Ok…”

“My dad was an asshole and he beat on my mom, a lot, and he beat on me too and I never stood up to him.”

“And he killed your mom?”

White nodded.

“I appreciate the offer, but I don’t need some kid with a white knight complex messing up my life any more than it already is.”

“I don’t think you realize how bad it is for you.”

“Every day I’m still here is a day that isn’t as bad as it could be. I’ll take care of this myself. Thanks for the heads up.”

She felt bad as she watched him skulk away, but she already had enough loose ends to deal with and the last thing she needed was some doe-eyed cop playing hero for her. She was going to be her own goddam hero.

* * *

Lodi found the gun in her bedroom halfway through her second bottle of wine. She remembered having it at the gun range but didn’t remember picking it up or bringing it back with her. But she didn’t remember much about the hours and days after that surreal outing. Somewhere along the way she’d left an old briefcase full of money on Andre’s front porch – money Sammy had stolen the first time she broke into Andre’s house. She retrieved the gun case from the top of her fridge and loaded the gun with three bullets rolling around loosely. By the time the second bottle of wine was almost gone, she’d drawn a bath and called Greg.

* * *

“I don’t understand,” Greg said, through tears.

Lodi put her hand on his leg and scooted in closer to him. He knew exactly what the video she showed him meant, but he didn’t want to believe it. She bunched her robe tighter with her other hand and explained it again. Her words and movements deliberately choreographed for maximum effect and minimal guilt on her part. She wanted to play to Greg’s anger, not his libido. It was important that she seem vulnerable and soft, but not enough that he would try to sleep with her.

“A friend of mine who does some work with Andre came across this security footage from his house the day our kids were shot.”

“How do you know this guy?”

“I was his doctor for a worker’s comp case. It didn’t turn out the way either of us hoped it would…”

“They were breaking into his house.”

“They were being stupid kids,” Lodi said. “Which is not punishable by death the last time I checked.”

“And he just blew them away.”

“He was a cop. He’s supposed to be better than this. Better than some stupid kids, better than your average home owner with a gun.”

“Has anyone else seen this?”

Lodi shook her head no.

“Wouldn’t make a difference,” she said. “Couple of white suburban kids breaking into the home of a black cop? Nobody’s going to convict him for defending himself.”

“He needs to pay.”

This was the moment. Would he look at her robe, and the sliver of her thigh, and want to be her hero, or would he look at the video and see a man shoot Zack point blank in the head and want payback? She could live with either, but preferred the later.

He reached over her waist and she sighed, expecting him to slip his hand in her robe and make his move. But he took the remote from the cushion next to her and rewound the video to the spot where Andre shoots Zack. She made sure the gun was still visible on the coffee table next to the couch then kissed Greg on the cheek and went to bed.

* * *

Lodi was helping Sammy to the car after she’d been discharged when Inspector White tapped her on the shoulder. She motioned for Sammy to continue to the car on her own while she stayed and talked to White by the exit.

“I was wrong about you,” he said.

“You wouldn’t be the first.”

“Some kind of luck though, your best friend in the whole world putting a bullet in the only person who could tie you to the death of your husband and then eating a bullet himself after writing a very detailed and convenient suicide note confessing to everything.”

Lodi shrugged her shoulders.

“I can’t figure out if I’m impressed or horrified,” White said.

“Life’s all about navigating that wide-open space between the two,” Lodi said.

“Have a good day ma’am,” he said, waving as she walked away. “Stay safe.”