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Two Crime Novellas by Malachi Stone:

HOW TO MURDER YOUR TROPHY WIFE

And


DEAD BEFORE I WAKE



© 2018 by Malachi Stone


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 as amended, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the author constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property.

If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the author at: theoriginalmalachistone@gmail.com.Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

All the characters in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental. All the characters in this book are over eighteen years of age.



TABLE OF CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

DEAD BEFORE I WAKE

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CONNECT WITH ME ONLINE



Cover image:


The Knight Errant by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt


HOW TO MURDER

YOUR TROPHY WIFE

A novella by Malachi Stone



For Maria

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? –Jeremiah 17:9, KJV

CHAPTER ONE



There are too many lawyers. Like it says on my business cards, I'm one of them. Monday through Friday nine to five and Saturdays until around noon I can be had, for a price. If you want to dump your wife or run off on your husband, I'm here to help. If you've been in a fender bender and want to make some easy money faking an injury, pick up the phone and call me, I'll help you out for a piece of the action. Google me; I’m all over the Internet. You can't miss me. Have you committed a crime and want to get away with it? Ask around at the jail, I'm your man. That's what I do Monday through Friday and half of Saturday. Saturday afternoon is none of your business. Sunday I try to make it to church as long as it's Easter.

Everybody always says there are too many lawyers and not enough doctors. If I were a doctor I wouldn't be the life-saving kind. I'd be the kind that does abortions, blows up women's boobs or changes men into women and women into men. That's the kind of lawyer I am: Frankenstein with a briefcase. Did I mention my wife left me?

Every county seat has one, the preferred watering hole for lawyers, a block or so from the courthouse. Sometimes it's called the Office, sometimes the Jury Room, and sometimes the Library, as in, "I'll be home soon, Honey, right after I look something up in The Library." All too often the "something" he's talking about turns out to be a trim piece of trouble fresh from the traffic clerk's office.

In my town the bar in question does not have one of those cutesy names with a legal flair. It's called Ye Olde Round Table. Once inside, the only thing you'll see that's round is the main bar, which is completely circular and comfortably seats thirty or forty regular patrons.

It was mid-afternoon on the Friday before Christmas. Garlands of tinsel and strings of blinking colored lights festooned the premium liquor shelves, the overhead drying racks and the decorative Guinness keg, warming the familiar dark ambience of the Round Table. The proprietor, Art King, had wanted to call the joint King Arthur's Castle until somebody'd talked him out of it. The Round Table came close.

Vern Knight and I sat due south at the bar, crystal-gazing into a stereopticon of Cap and Coke doubles—two apiece. Art knew us well enough to set them up that way without asking, even throwing in a lime wedge garnish as an extra added flourish of customer appreciation. We sat and stared into our highball glasses, trying to catch a glimpse of the future through the murky rum mists.

Only lawyers, judges and professional burglars got off work this early. Vern and I were the only two guys at the bar but, as Art always said, he'd rather be serving two serious well-behaved drinkers like us than a bar full of draft beer punk assholes looking for trouble. Vern and I both took it as a compliment.

Like any other Friday afternoon, after a couple drinks I started mouthing off about my troubles, and my number one biggest trouble at the time was my wife. By four in the afternoon I didn't care who heard me.

"What I want to know," I said, addressing the premium rack as though arguing to a jury, "is why we marry 'em in the first place. Matter of fact, once I figure that out, I'll write a book about it. I even have the title all picked out: Why Do Men Marry Assholes? The Voice of Experience. How do you like that for a title, Vern? You make your living doing divorces. Think it'll sell?"

"You'd put me out of business if it did," Vern said into his rocks glass.

"No way. You want to know why not? Because guys are gonna keep right on marrying assholes, book or no book. You know I'm right."

"I hear you."

"You know I'm right."

"You said that already. Don't start repeating yourself; it's a sure sign of age."

We did sound like a couple of old guys, the way we were talking that afternoon. We sounded a lot like members of our parents' generation, but I couldn't accept being relegated to the boneyard of irrelevance just yet. "I'm forty-three, Vern. At my age I should be at the peak of my earning power. And look at me: still hustling tickets for a quick fifty here and a hundred there, screwing around with orders of protection and small claims. I had to let my only secretary go last week, did I tell you that? She'd been with me ten years, hardest thing I ever had to do, but I couldn't afford paying her by the hour to park her ass at the front desk, polish her nails and wait to answer a phone that never rings. Looks like I'll be doing my own typing from here on out while I pay taxes, pay utilities, pay suite rental, pay office supplies, pay malp insurance, pay yellow page ads, pay Internet ads, pay pay pay!"

"Bitch, bitch bitch," Vern countered. "You ever consider a second career as a non-motivational speaker? People'd pay to sit and listen to you for an hour or so, go out, kill their whole families and then hang themselves. I'm trying to get drunk here. I don't need all the constant negativity."

"Sorry, Vern," I said, but couldn't resist adding, "It's just that for as long as I care to remember it's been me paying money out the ass and nothing to show for it. Gwen always liked nice things, so as her husband I figured it was my job to go out and get them for her. I did that for years. All it got me is a house payment from hell, negative equity, and credit card debt I have to hustle every month to cover. Half the time I wake up screaming. End of every month my hair's on fire."

Then I let the bomb drop. "Gwen's divorcing me, Vern, did you know that?"

Vern turned to look at me, reached over and gave me a quick pat on the back for consolation. He signaled Art and did that swizzle stick tornado motion over our glasses.

"That's how it is. When the money goes, the wife goes. I married an asshole!" I shouted that last. In the mirror I could see heads turning in my direction. Art looked up from where he'd been rinsing beer glasses two at a time in the bar sink and shot me a reproving glower. A good Catholic, he forbade cursing in his bar unless he was the one doing the cursing. He'd been known to throw customers out for committing even a single infraction of his strict anti-profanity policy.

"Gwen's divorcing me and you know what? I can't say as I blame her. I could kill the bitch with my bare hands, chop her into little pieces and feed her to the dog, if we had one, but I don't blame her."

Vern lowered his palm, signaling me to turn down the volume. I asked him, "Where'd it all go, Vern? Where'd all the money cases go, the cases we used to rely on?"

Vern took a thoughtful pull on his right-hand Cap and Coke. "What you gonna do? It's the economy. We're all of us in the same boat and the boat's sinking. Unless you're one of those lawyers can afford ads on television. Or become a goddamn judge. Now there's financial security." He shifted his weight from one ass cheek to the other and added, "Course, you gotta have the right connections. Political connections."

"I have the fucking political connections." I probably bellowed a little.

"The fuck you say," Vern said.

"Hey, hey, hey!" Art protested. "What did I tell you guys? I run a nice clean establishment here. Can't you see there are ladies present?" He gestured toward a nearby booth where four women I knew from the Circuit Clerk's office were sharing a pitcher of sours. There were scattered patrons—some familiar to me, some not— seated at other booths and tables. When had the bar filled up?

Vern jerked his head in the general direction of the courthouse. "Half those guys on the bench over there?" he said, talking under his breath now. "They oughta be investigated by the Judicial Conduct Board. But we both know that's never gonna happen. It's all county politics. Dirty politics, but nobody does anything about it, and you know what? Nobody's ever gonna do anything about it. So I say, you got connections? Use them."

"I have to do something to win her back, Vern. I always depended on Gwen to cure everything that's gone wrong with my life. Everything. And now she's gone." I felt like crying.

Vern drained his left hand Cap and Coke, said, "Taste of the tropics," and sucked on the lime. He did that Godfather thing with the peel, like Brando, trying to get a laugh out of me. It didn't work. He kept trying. It still didn't work.

"You hear what I'm saying, Vern? I have to win her back. It's like a powerful physical need with me. If I can't win her back somehow, I'm afraid I might do something crazy."

"You know what's wrong with you? You got yourself a bad case of pre-divorce dementia." Vern spit the lime peel back into his glass and asked, "You wanna know how to impress Gwen? Put in for judge. Can you think of a better way? It's the same thing as retiring except the money's better. Plus it'll give you all the time you need to work on your marriage instead of sitting in here bitching to me about it."

"You're drunk, Vern."

"Drunk and right at the same time. Ask yourself this, Gar: what the hell else you got going on?"

"I don't think it works that way, Vern. They aren't looking for guys to be judge just because they've got nothing else going on."

"The hell they ain't. Three new associate judge vacancies opened up after the election, and Curt Conrad fucking up riding the gravy train makes it four. The chief judge's office is running ads every week in the legal reporter asking for local attorneys to apply. Hell, you'd be perfect for the job. You did say you're connected, right? Loyal to the party all these years, all that shit?"

"I vote the straight ticket in the presidential elections, that's about it. That and the Junkman."

Vern's eyes darted around as though I had just asked him to help me bomb the courthouse. "You got juice with the Junkman?" he whispered.

"My old man knew him ever since they were kids in grade school. You might say they came up together, did favors for each other. I worked for him too, at the junkyard, summer breaks back when I was in college."

"Your old man knew Al Kaiser since they were kids? What the hell are you wasting time in here polishing your Johnson? Get thee to the junkyard! Go see him right now!"

"Wonder what I'd even say to the man after all these years?"

"Say to him, shit! Say you want to be a judge, for your old man's sake. Then bend down, pucker up and and kiss the golden spot! You're as good as robed up already, Your Honor." Vern mimicked a kowtow so overly obsequious and elaborate that he nearly fell off the bar stool.

I had never been more sick and tired of the practice of law. The idea of becoming a judge had never occurred to me, but, grog-fueled by the rum I'd imbibed that Friday afternoon, I considered the question. The position of associate judge paid around a hundred eighty thou per year last time I checked, not to mention free health care and sweet pension benefits. Most associate judges of my acquaintance put in at most a four-hour day, more than half of that with their feet up. Once you considered the bullshit sessions in chambers, the two-hour lunches, the personal phone calls and the horsing around on the Internet on county time, Vern was right: it was like being retired, only for better money.

One of those judicial vacancies was due to a little too much horsing around. Associate Judge Curtis T. Conrad had been caught sexting on his county-issue cell phone with somebody he thought was a thirteen-year-old girl. The child-woman mystery date of Conrad's daytime fantasies turned out to be a state trooper with a shaved head and a bad attitude, who didn't appreciate the pics Conrad sent of himself sitting in chambers with his robe pulled up and his intentions abundantly displayed. Curt was scheduled to go to trial next month, this time on the wrong side of the bench.

"Vern, old buddy, I'm gonna follow your sage and sagacious advice," I said, patting him on the back as I got up to leave. "It's high time I paid a social call on old Al Kaiser."

"Here's more advice: after you talk to him, better buy yourself a lifetime supply of Head & Shoulders to keep those embarrassing dandruff flakes off the black robe they'll be fitting you for. And don't forget to remember who your friends are once you're appointed."

"You're the best friend I've got, Vern. Hell, you're my only friend." I almost added that he should apply for one of the four openings himself, but stopped short for two reasons. Number one, I didn't want the competition. Number two, I knew Vern had gone bankrupt a few years ago and had done something cute with his taxes to the point he wound up having to play Let's Make a Deal with the IRS. Neither one of those rattling skeletons would stay in the closet for very long once the local papers started vetting potential jurists.

"And don't get a goddamn DUI on the way over, screw up your chances!" Vern yelled after me.

One of the clerks catcalled, "Heading home to murder your wife, Mr. Gallant?" I heard derisive shrieks of laughter from the other women in her party.

Art offered, "You want I should call you a cab, Mr. Gallant?" I waved them all off and made for the parking lot, heady with booze and excitement. Before reaching my car I was already savoring the

title in my mind, visualizing it etched on a brass plaque: The Honorable G. Wayne Gallant, Associate Judge. Wouldn't Gwen eat her heart out over that? I pulled onto the main drag and made for the junkyard, driving five miles per hour under the limit and keeping a judicious eye on the rear view.



CHAPTER TWO


Kaiser and Son Scrap Dealers sprawled just outside of town next to the railroad yards. Marcus Kaiser was long gone; he'd died young, leaving his only son Albert as sole heir to his junk and real estate businesses. In the ensuing decades Al Kaiser had built his late father's legacy into a virtual dynasty. Word was he owned everything in the county worth owning. Darker rumors hinted at shadowy connections to organized crime, that he was the biggest German-Jewish-American mobster since Dutch Schultz. And like Schultz—his hero—Kaiser had converted to Christianity, thinking that Jesus would keep him out of prison. So far it was working for him. He never missed Saturday afternoon mass. The FBI'd get an earful if they ever planted a bug in the confessional at St. Hyacinth's, Kaiser's church he supported almost single-handedly.

Ever since I could remember the Junkman had been wheelchair-bound, his legs useless. The story was that somebody had taken a sledge hammer to the Junkman's kneecaps, swinging the maul for a couple rousing choruses of I've Been Working On the Railroad, in a losing bid to make him talk. But the Junkman never talked. His strength lay hidden in his silence, in his loyalty to principalities and powers higher than himself. The same rumors held that the hammer-wielding inquisitor spent his final agonizing moments as guest of the Junkman's car crusher until it squeezed him like a winepress.

You could never get my old man to talk, either, not about the jobs he did for the Junkman, and now death had sealed his lips forever.

My dad's pull had gotten me a job there at the junkyard one summer when I was putting myself through law school. The place hadn't changed much in the twenty intervening years. I pulled in knowing I'd probably pick up a nail or a steel sliver in one of my tires no matter how carefully I drove down the cinder lane that meandered through the place like the River Styx.

A recycler of secondary metals, was Al Kaiser: an environmentalist of sorts. At least that was his cover, and he'd gotten steadily richer over the years because of it. I paused for a moment to watch a crane operator pick up rusted rebar with a huge lifting magnet, swing the crane boom around and drop load after load into one of a coupled string of gondola cars standing on a railroad siding. Every pass of the magnet meant another, what? Fifteen hundred bucks in Al Kaiser's pocket? Whose junk this is I think I know; his house is in the village, though... Each time the gigantic magnet cut loose another hulking tangle of scrap it took a second or so for the crash of sound to reach one's ears, like seeing and then hearing a gunshot over a body of water. I passed another employee feeding scrap iron through an alligator shear. Piles of wrecked auto carcasses were stacked four and five high on racks, waiting for a date with the crusher. The incessant sound of the hammer mill was like the junkyard's beating heart.

I parked a safe distance from the nearest scavenged auto and walked the rest of the way to the junk shack. Inside I knew I would find the Junkman, Al Kaiser himself, sitting in his wheelchair warming himself next to the potbellied stove. I knocked at the door, which was nothing more than some salvaged boards held together by an unpainted two-by-four cross brace. I could smell the cigar smoke already.

"Yeah?" The phlegmy voice took me back two decades.

I took hold of the thumb latch, opened the door a crack and peeked inside, with what I hoped was a suitably obsequious smile pasted on my face. The rum helped.

There in the midst of a swirling cloud of blue smoke sat Al Kaiser himself, balder and more grizzled, forty pounds heavier but otherwise exactly as I remembered him from my law school days. He looked like he'd been wearing the same bib overalls since the last time I'd seen him. Al Kaiser had never looked like much and his appearance hadn't improved with age. Today, as a matter of fact, he looked like shit. Want to know one thing I've learned over nearly twenty years of law practice? Don't let appearances fool you.

Inside the shack it was hot as a sauna. "Get your ass in here and shut the door behind ya, you're lettin' all the goddamned heat out, Jerry," Kaiser said to me as though I still worked for him and had just come back late from lunch. He'd never gotten my first name right and I'd long since given up on correcting him. I came to think he deliberately called me by the wrong name just to needle me. It was his prerogative, after all. He was the boss. He'd always been the boss.

I did as he said, stepping forward and offering a handshake which he ignored.

"So what brings you here, Jerry?" His voice then and now sounded like he was gargling molasses. Hearing Al Kaiser speak always made me want to clear my throat, but for some reason he seemed oblivious to the unsettling sound of his own voice, perhaps having made an uneasy peace with the death rattle of omnipresent phlegm. Or maybe he just liked making people uncomfortable in his presence. "I ain't seen you since, hell, since the day they planted your old man."

"It has been a while," I acknowledged.

"Ten years ago this August," he said. "August the twenty-third. A Tuesday. Rained like a cow pissing on a flat rock. Good thing they had that tent thing set up out at the cemetery. Wasn't near enough folding chairs, though. Lotta people wanting to pay their respects had to stand. Them funeral homes, they never set up enough folding chairs. Me, I didn't have no problem." One thing about Al Kaiser, he remembered funerals. Also birthdays, anniversaries, graduations—if Hallmark made a card for it, count on Al Kaiser to remember the date. I've noticed the same quality in all good politicians, that excessive mindfulness for other peoples' life passages and transitions. My old man had had it, and although he'd never been a politician himself, he'd known plenty of them in his day.

Kaiser didn't offer me a chair. There was only one chair in the junk shack and he was in it. For all I knew his ass was welded to it. "So what's the problem, Jerry?"

"Problem, Mr. Kaiser?"

"Nobody comes to see me but there's a problem. You might say I'm like God in that respect." Kaiser crossed himself, kissing his fingertips after. "Nobody of my acquaintance gets down on his knees and says to God, 'Hey, God, how ya doin'? Me? I'm fine, don't need nothin' at all. Thanks for asking, though.' No, the ones God hears from, you can lay odds they all want something big from him, some favor or other they probably don't deserve in the first place—some miracle cure, or to get them out of a jam they got themselves into. That's who God hears from, day and night. So, I ask again Jerry, what's the problem?"

So I told him my problem, about my law practice going down the dumper, about Gwen divorcing me, and about my sudden judicial ambitions and how I thought he could help. When I was finished, for a long while Kaiser just sat slumped in his wheelchair, massive head jutting forward, shoulders rounded, hands folded idly in his lap. His eyes were closed. The only way I could tell he was still alive was the small short puffs he took on the cheap cigar clamped in his mouth. He looked like a troll statuette you'd keep on your wet bar next to the W.C. Fields tramp leaning against a lamp post.

At last he spoke. "I can smell the hooch on you from clear over here, Jerry. You need to cut that stuff out. Look what it done to your old man."

"You're right, Mr. Kaiser. Thanks for the advice."

"You're welcome." He sat staring, or more precisely, squinting at me through the cigar smoke. It was true; my old man had died before he'd actually become an old man. He was forty-nine when the heart attack took him. He'd been behind the wheel at the time. The lawyers fought for years back and forth trying to hash out the chicken/egg controversy: which came first, the heart attack that killed him or the car crash that killed three people in the other car. It mattered in terms of money. My old man had carried an absurd amount of auto insurance for the time—a million dollars.

And no life insurance. He'd always said that he didn't want to be worth more dead than alive, my old man. Ironically, his boxcar auto insurance limits made him exactly that to the plaintiffs' estates that sued his estate, in a classic case of the dead suing the dead. If it could be proven that the car collision chicken happened before the heart attack egg, it meant that my old man had been negligent in causing the deaths of those three people in the other car and his insurance would have to pay up. Of course, the insurance company's defense attorneys sought to prove that the heart attack egg came before the car crash chicken, because in the eyes of the law there's nothing negligent about having a sudden heart attack without warning, and no negligence means goose-egg for the dead plaintiffs.

"Listen," Kaiser said at last, "I'm gonna tell you something: you never shoulda married that woman. You'd of ast my advice at the time I'd a told ya. But that whore you're married to? Cunts like her are the things I shit out."

I weakly rose to Gwen's defense, explaining to Kaiser that, as far as I knew, Gwen had never cheated on me. Rather, it had been our constant bickering over money and over my failing career that had driven her away.

"Don't you think I know how it is with ungrateful bitches like her? It's always about the money!" Kaiser shouted. Puffing on his cigar and regaining his composure after a moment, he added, "But I'm gonna tell you something, Jerry: I don't see you as a judge. You ain't cut out for it."

It was like he was telling me there was no Santa Claus. "Not cut out for it? Why not? How am I not cut out for it? I could learn same as anybody else." My own voice sounded to me like a pathetic bleat of a disappointed schoolboy and maybe a tad disrespectful. I resolved to be even more toadyish; after all, this was the job interview of a lifetime.

"You ain't got what they call the judicial temperament. Either you got it or you ain't. I'll tell you something else: your old man never had it in mind for you to be a judge. Lawyer, now, that's different."

"But the thing is, I just can't cut it financially practicing law any more, Mr. Kaiser. I'm going down the tubes as we speak."

"That's 'cause of your poor life choices. That woman. I knew she was wrong for you from the start. Champagne taste on a beer budget, that one. You're lucky to be getting rid of her."

Kaiser had not attended our wedding. For the first time I wondered whether it was his disapproval of Gwen that had kept him away. Or had he been insulted by my own failure to seek out his advice in the choice of a mate? Whatever the reason he had chosen to stay away from our nuptials, the next morning on our honeymoon we found tucked into Gwen's beaded silk bridal purse a plain envelope containing one hundred clean, crisp Benjamins and no card. None had been necessary to identify the donor.

The donor was sitting right in front of me and seemed to have read my mind. "No thank you note, no nothing," he grunted in disgust, a man who had held his tongue for eleven years. "She's an ingrate, Jerry. Once an ingrate, always an ingrate." It was the worst epithet Al Kaiser could ever utter. Ingratitude was the single unpardonable sin in his book of vices, the death knell of the politically ambitious.

And it was my own political ambitions that concerned me today. So I resorted to begging. I begged Al Kaiser to consider pulling strings for me to become an associate judge. I pleaded, groveled, did everything but bow and scrape. Through it all Kaiser reacted not at all. He sat staring into a corner of the junk shack like there was a program he was watching on invisible TV. Running out of things to say I paused for breath. Kaiser looked up, seeming mildly perplexed by my continuing presence, and said, "So we all caught up here?"

"I—I guess so, Mr. Kaiser. I just hope you'll give your careful consideration to what I've said here today."

Kaiser waved his hand dismissively. "Yeah, yeah. Listen, I'm gonna tell you something." He strained to reach a box fan on the floor and turn it on. The blade was bent and clattered against the frame, making an awful racket, loud enough even to drown out the junkyard noise coming from outside. He beckoned me closer. I moved toward him. He continued beckoning and I kept edging closer and closer until I was standing directly beside his wheelchair looking down at him. Only then did he speak again, in a low voice difficult to hear above the noise.

"Your father was a helluva man. You tell Wayne Gallant to go do something, whatever it was, he went and did it, no questions asked, and he knew how to keep his mouth shut. Are you that kind of man, Jerry? A no questions asked keep your mouth shut kind of man?"

Sensing that he was expecting it of me, I nodded. A fearsome calm came over me then like a dark curtain, a foreboding assurance that, as I'd often suspected but never known for sure, my old man had in fact been caught up in things I was better off not knowing.

Kaiser shifted the cigar from one side of his mouth to the other without using his hands. "So you wanna be a judge, huh?"

I nodded again.

"And I can't talk you out of it? You got your mind made up?"

I nodded again. He sighed with what seemed like deep regret and said, "The way this works, let's say I decide to do you a favor, since you showed consideration enough to come all the way out here and ast me personally. So if I was to go ahead and do you this favor, you're gonna have to do something for me in return. You may not like to but it don't matter; you're obligated. That's the way it is, and that's always been the way it is. One hand washes the other, and both hands wash the face. Now for instance, you being a lawyer, let's say somebody was to steer a few big money cases your way, okay? In exchange, to show your gratitude to the somebody did you the favor in the first place, you gotta kick back a little something. And by a little something I'm talking say ten per cent off the top. Verstehen, Jerry?"

"Ich verstehe." It was the only German I knew, and I'd picked it up from my old man at the A & W after one or another of his mysterious meetings with Kaiser.

"I know you verstehen, Jerry. You may be a lotta things, but you was never a dumb guy. You take after your father that way. Wayne Gallant knew how to return a favor, that and how to keep his mouth shut."

"I do understand, Mr. Kaiser. And I know you won't be sorry about this judge thing, either."

"Don't let's get ahead of ourselves here, Jerry. I never said yes, and I never said no."

"But if your answer is going to be no, how am I going to make a living after all that's happened?"

His neck appeared to tense and stiffen with annoyance but he went on talking anyway, explaining the ropes as though maybe he hadn't heard me. "Now there's some kinds a favors, it ain't so easy to break down into ten per cent. Them kinds a favors you repay what they call in kind, meaning I scratch your back, you scratch mine, get it?"

"You mean I still might get the judgeship, but only if I'm willing to throw a case or two now and then for the right people? Is that what you're saying?"

Kaiser looked me straight in the eye and said, barely audibly, "What did I tell you? You ain't a dumb guy."

I drew a deep breath, let it out, shuddered and said under my breath, "I suppose I could do that." I could feel what was left of my integrity bleeding out of me before the words escaped my mouth, before I even had the robe on. I told myself I was doing this for Gwen, to win her back.

"Good boy," he said, nodding with approval. "Listen, I'm gonna tell you something, Jerry; you wouldn't be doin' anything no different from what the boys in black robes been up to as long as I been around, and I been around as long as I can remember."

I nodded again, ruefully this time.

"And there's one more thing," he added. "You gotta go see the old lady. The way it works, I never make no important decisions until I talk it over with her first, get her opinion on things. Go by the house and see her right now; by the time you get there she'll have your answer for you. I'll let her know you're stoppin' by." He picked up the phone. Meeting adjourned sine die.



CHAPTER THREE


Like everybody else around the courthouse I'd heard the stories about Kaiser's "old lady" and the half-century age difference between them. Word was she'd been waitressing at one of the local greasy spoons when the Junkman first met her a couple years ago. She must have been desperate for some kind of a favor at the time. Either she was being threatened because she'd stiffed one of the local loan sharks, or maybe crossed a drug dealer or some other vicious character, but whatever it was, it had to have been something much worse than her just being sick and tired of having her feet hurt like hell from waiting tables. No, it was a sure bet she'd been running away from some bad trouble, bad enough to make her throw herself headlong into the open arms of an old prune like Al Kaiser, not only that but marry him.

Don't get me wrong; Al Kaiser was loaded. Loaded and as connected as anybody can be connected in this county. If Al Kaiser told the chief judge to shed his black robe, strip naked and prance around like a ballerina at the next County Board meeting, you could bet the commissioners would be treated to an impromptu performance of Swan Lake they'd never forget. But money or no money, it seemed to me it would take somebody with a hooker's mindset and a goat's stomach to go to bed with the Junkman. The very idea revolted me. On the drive over, I struggled to rid my mind of unbidden images.

And here he was telling me about my bad judgment in marrying Gwen. Despite all our problems I refused to admit he was right. Somehow I'd patch things up with Gwen. Her moving out was nothing more than a temporary gambit on her part to gain concessions from me, get my attention in a big way, maybe finally convince me to make a few changes in myself, things I'd been intending to change all along but never gotten around to, what with the demands of the law practice and all. Our marriage was definitely not over, I was sure of that much.

I didn't need the GPS to locate Kaiser's house. It was a huge old monument at the end of a quiet street. It had once been his father's house, a three-story mausoleum almost completely hidden from street view by mature trees and a stone perimeter wall. The walls were quarried stone. There were corner turrets and parapets on the roof fashioned to resemble medieval battlements. The house had been built back at the turn of the last century by a coal baron before income tax, and he must have took that "a man's home is castle" thing a little too seriously.

When I was a kid I thought the Kaiser mansion actually was a castle. My old man had driven me there more times than I cared to count. He'd never tell me where we were going, a sure sign that I wasn't going to be happy once we got there. The ride to Al Kaiser's house had been right up there with going to the doctor to get a booster shot. What I remembered most about Kaiser's house was the excruciating boredom of sitting there immobile on a camelback horsehair sofa in the parlor, listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock and waiting for my old man to get done talking to the Junkman. My legs didn't reach the floor. I'd sat stock-still for what seemed like hours, staring at the creepy old painting of a naked lady tied to a tree while a knight in shining armor tries to rescue her—or maybe he's the one tying her up in the first place, I could never decide. I was forbidden to play outside in the yard, but had to sit there alone while my old man met interminably and in secret with the man himself. What they discussed was never made known to me, but my old man always emerged with a look of grim determination on his face, and he always took me to the drive-in to get black cows on the ride home.

Secret destination, grim determination, black cows—the untold story of my childhood. It was a black robe and not a black cow I wanted today as I walked up to Kaiser's house and rang the bell—one of those old-fashioned filigreed mechanical ones where you turn a thing like a thumbscrew. From inside, a clear female voice, high and brassy like a child's, called out, "Come on in; it's open."

Why did I feel like I was being entrapped, that it was not too late to run, that my mission here today was somehow both illicit and illegal? All I wanted to do was be a judge. Maybe if I were a judge, Gwen might come running back. What was I saying? Of course she'd come running back to me in my newly elevated judicial role. The position of judge, even associate judge, did carry a certain cachet. And cachet was something a woman like Gwen was drawn to like dead meat draws flies. Not to mention the money.

I opened the door. "In here," the childlike voice rang out. It was coming from the same parlor where I had spent so many hours waiting, back in the day. I followed it, passing through the familiar dark wood pocket doors into the parlor, where she was seated on that very same horsehair sofa.

I don't know what I'd been expecting to find, but the lady of the house had a short-cropped spiked hairdo dyed a shade of crimson that doesn't exist in nature. She absently brushed away a razor-cut fringe that drooped over her right eye and onto her cheek. She wore no discernible makeup other than an excess of eyeliner and black mascara that gave her raccoon eyes and made her lips look deathly pale. The new Ms. Kaiser was dressed casually: sleeveless white tank top worn braless with Roller Derby spelled out in sequins across the front, tight cheeky shorts and Cat in the Hat candy-striped leg warmers. Her urchin face was lit with a bright welcoming smile. She could have passed for Kaiser’s granddaughter but for the diamond engagement and wedding rings he'd placed on the fourth finger of her left hand.

"You must be Jerry," she chirped rather too merrily. "Hi, I'm Al's old lady." Remaining seated, she extended her left hand. When I did not immediately approach, she twiddled her fingers, cocked her wrist and continued to smile at me. The eye-popping diamond sparkler she was wearing refracted the afternoon sunlight into pricey rainbows. Given her exalted position to decide my future, I didn't know whether to shake her hand or kiss it. So I kissed it, on the knuckles, my lower lip just brushing the ring.

"Eew, gross!" she exclaimed.

"Sorry," I said, nonplussed.

She reached for a dispenser of hand sanitizer on a nearby table, squirted out a generous dollop into her palm and vigorously massaged it in, all the way to the wrists. She looked like she was scrubbing for surgery. "You have no idea how many germs live and lurk in the human mouth," she said. "I hate germs, don't you?"

"They've never been a personal favorite of mine, either."

"I happen to know a thing or two about germs," she went on. "As you can see, I'm a pre-nursing student."

Indeed, next to her on the couch an anatomy text lay open to a full-color illustration of the male sex organ in vertical section: split right down the middle, as it were. Beside it was a spiral notebook with a picture of a nurse on the cover.

"That's interesting," I said, although it wasn't. "May I ask what college you're attending?"

She gave me the name of a substandard online diploma mill that advertised day and night on ghetto television. A fifteen-hundred-dollar laptop sat open on the coffee table in front of her. She carelessly slammed it shut and said, “Time for a study break.” By the time Al's old lady graduated—if she graduated—the worthless certificate she'd receive would likely have set the Junkman back somewhere upwards of sixty grand, and wouldn't even qualify her for a job taking temperatures at the dog pound.

“Don't mind the way I look today,” Al's old lady went on, brushing away the palm frond hair fringe from her forehead and eye. It stubbornly fell back into place. “It’s not that I don’t make the attempt. I’m serious; every time they try and do one of those makeover demos on me at the mall, they end up throwing in the towel and giving me up as a hopeless case. The thing is, I have the kind of face that swallows up makeup like a black hole. That’s why I always look like I just fell out of bed.”

Sensing that she was an extraordinarily needy girl fishing for compliments, I assured her that she looked like a high-fashion model in a classy women’s magazine. She listened with a blank expression until I started to run down, and then continued to stare at me silently, lips slightly parted, tilting her head as though holding out for more. Finally she sat back and said, “Al called and told me you’d be coming over.”

“I know.”

“We tell each other everything, Al and me.”

“That’s good,” I said. “I think total honesty and openness are two essential qualities in a good marriage.”

She stared some more. “So your wife took off on you?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, as a matter of fact, she did."

Still she stared.

"I’m not happy about it," I went on, "but these things happen.”

“She say why?”

“You mean did she leave a note of explanation? No, nothing like that. I just came home one night and she was gone.”

"How long's it been?"

I debated icily informing her it was none of her business, but tact won out. "Couple of months," I said.

"That's a long time. For a man to go without, I mean. How you holding up?"

"Beg your pardon?"

But she seemed to have only more questions. “She hook up with another dude?”

I was beginning to resent this little bitch nosing around in my personal life merely to kill time during her study break from remedial anatomy. But, being fully aware who had the clout here, and assuming that her opinion counted for something—although I couldn’t tell how much or how little it counted—I held my tongue. Instead, shrugging, I said, “Who knows? I haven’t seen any evidence of it.”

“But she could be? Hooked up with another dude?”

“Anything's possible. At this point your guess is as good as mine.”

“Because the reason I ask, Al says if you want him to, he’ll do something about it. Take it from me; the one thing Al absolutely cannot tolerate is infidelity. Well, that and ingratitude. They're kind of the same thing when you think about it, aren't they?"

I allowed that I supposed she had a point there.

"Al says for me to tell you: just say the word and it’s done.”

“Just say the word and what’s done? Did Al—Mr. Kaiser—tell you the reason he sent me over here today? He did explain to you what I’d asked him about, right?”

“Yeah. He said your old lady dumped you and that you’re hot to be a judge. That about cover it?”

“That about covers it,” I said.

He puffed out her cheeks, blew out her breath, looked at me and said, “Here’s the thing, Jerry: judge is out."

"What?"

She shook her head no. "Al thinks you lack the judicial temperament."

"Lack the judicial temperament? What's that supposed to mean?"

"Some people have it and some people don’t. It's nothing personal. I mean I just met you, right? But you happen to be one of those guys that don’t have what it takes to be on the bench.” When I opened my mouth to respond she held up her hand—the one with the big ring—for silence and said, “But, Al says for me to tell you that to make up for you not getting the judge thing, he’s going to help you out in other ways.”

“What kind of ways?” I was immediately apprehensive. This whole meeting was seriously going off the rails.

“Al says for me to tell you that he thinks you’re a hell of an attorney. His words, not mine. He wants me to let you know that your life is gonna improve in a big way, and real soon.”

It sounded like fortune cookie advice to me, but I took it. Al's old lady opened her laptop, looked at me and raised her eyebrows. Sensing that the meeting was over and I was being dismissed, I thanked Al's old lady effusively and made for the door. As I turned to go I noticed that the naked lady with lurking knight painting still hung in its familiar place on the wall. I was exiting through the pocket doors when I heard her call out in a provocative voice. "Jerry?"

I turned back to her. She grabbed the hem of her top, raised it up for a count of three and flashed her bare breasts at me. Lowering her top again she looked me directly in the eye and said, "That's all you get. For now."

It was true I probably had been staring. Hers were the kind of breasts that looked better through fabric than exposed to the open air. Her bare nipples had a warty, peasant look about them, giving off a wet nurse impression that spoke functionality rather than desire. The telltale darkening of the areolae warned me that somewhere along the line she'd had a kid. Outside of that she had a few angry red pimples scattered here and there, marring the otherwise perfect expanse of creamy skin. Her breasts were big, though; her slim frame only served to accentuate their preoccupying size. I wondered whether the Junkman had popped for a boob job. My guess was, my drinking buddy Vern would rate her five for face and nine for tits. And he was a tough judge.

"Listen, Jerry, I'm gonna tell you something," she said, echoing the Junkman's familiar line. "My husband leaves me cooped up here alone all day, six days a week."

"That's too bad. Don't you get bored?"

"What I'm telling you is I have my days free. Get the message?"

"You're a big girl," I said, "big enough to be home alone."

She shot me a look that warned me my deliberate obtuseness was beginning to grate on her nerves. "Look, Jerry, here's the thing: Al never comes home for lunch, never. I pack him a bag lunch every morning like he was a first-grader going to catch the school bus. Same thing every day, too: peanut butter sandwich with banana slices, an apple and a Peter Paul Mounds bar for dessert. And every Saturday night he heads off to Mass at St. Hyacinth soon as they start ringing the bells. Six PM, you could set your watch by it, and he doesn't make it back here for at least an hour. Longer, if there's a line for confession." She did the hair sweep thing again. "What I'm saying is, some men might see an opportunity in all that. How about you? Are you one of those men?"

"I guess I'm one of those men who don't know what to say."

"No need to say anything at all, Jerry," she said, reclining back against the couch and stretching, arms over her head, heaving those big breasts at me. "Just giving you a little something to think about, now that your wife's left you. You a thinking man, Jerry?"

I didn't know whether to run like hell or go over and kiss her. I figured that if I sat down next to her now, my legs would finally reach the floor.

My gaze wandered over again to that damn painting that was still hanging there after all these years, the one of the tied-up nude woman and the knight in shining armor stalking her out there in the woods. It looked like he was getting ready to cut her loose with his sword. Her face was turned away as though in shame, but ashamed of what? Ashamed of being seen in the nude by a strange man, or ashamed of what she had agreed to do in exchange for him releasing her? I made a mental note to Google a description of the painting and see if I could find out the name of the artist. What the hell was his goddamn story, anyhow?

The whole thing reminded me of that book I read for a college lit course. I think it was some King Arthur thing, where the husband catches one of Arthur's knights screwing his wife and demands for a punishment that the knight screw him, too, to even things up. They say a notorious Illinois serial murderer liked to play the same dirty little game when he was still married. He'd have his wife lure some unsuspecting chump into bed. Then, on a prearranged signal, hubby would walk in and "catch" them at it, thereupon insisting that the man perform a degrading sex act on hubby to set things right, the more repugnant the sex act to the victim the better. By the time his appeals ran out and hubby finally got the needle, the clown paintings he'd been doing at the penitentiary were going for five thou a pop as fast as he could crank them out, and the price has since gone up on eBay, because, let's face it, he's not likely to be painting any more of them.

Al's old lady—she'd never revealed her name to me and it seemed too late to ask her now, not to mention she'd gotten my own name wrong and I saw no percentage in correcting her—had me going and she knew it, but I was more than a little afraid of her because of the man she was married to, and because, whether I liked it or not, both of them held my professional future in their grubby, grasping little hands. "Let me think it over," was what I said to her.

"Don't think it over too long," she said to my retreating back. "Like Al always says, too much thinking has a way of ruining a man."

Maybe it was a throwback to my childhood memories of that house, but it felt good to be leaving. I considered stopping off for a black cow but booze won out instead. The Library was dead for a Friday. Even Vern seemed to have gone home earlier than usual. I wound up having a lot of time on my hands that night, time I spent sitting at the bar weighing Al's old lady's proposition while I downed shot after shot. And I have to admit, what she'd said she had in mind for me started sounding better and better the longer I drank. If things with Gwen didn't work out, I could always have Kaiser's wife, have those cow tits of hers pressed up against my face any time I wanted, and once I had her all good and wet from that, she'd let me slide cock-first into her pussy. Funny how a woman's spread cunt is shaped like home plate. She had come right out and asked me for it,

after all, practically begged me to stop by and drill her brains out while her old man was at work or at church, fuck her silly right there in the house. Not getting it at home, no doubt. I mean, look at her old man—no crotch bulge in those bib overalls he always wore, only that smooth, round, Humpty Dumpty male pudendum, practically advertising what he didn't have between his legs.

A few hours later I was telling Art King, "Used to be, some things were unspeakable. Heinous crimes and shit. Unspeakable. Not today, though; today, everything is speakable."

"Whatever you say, Mr. Gallant," Art said. "Whatever you say."

At some point that evening I switched over to tap beer. It tasted like fizzy water but it got the job done.



CHAPTER FOUR


I left the bar early that evening—early for me, maybe around eleven, and headed home to Lady of the Lake subdivision, wherein neither lakes nor ladies were to be found—to what I thought would be a dark and empty house. Instead, when I pulled into our driveway all the lights were on. The garage door was unlocked. Gwen's car was parked inside. My heart leaped in my chest. Gwen was back!

I threw open the side door and called out, "Honey, I'm home!" No response.

I was giddy with anticipation knowing my wife had come back home. I rushed through the house and down the dark hallway that led to our bedroom, illuminated only by the dim glow of the night light through the open door.

I heard Gwen's voice coming from inside the bedroom, asking, "Did you hear something?" She sounded fearful. Then another voice, distinctly male, said something back to her in a muffled tone; I couldn't make out the words. The man emerged from our bedroom. He was a big guy, maybe five eleven with a stocky build. Silhouetted in the dim light, he stood there with his legs apart, arms crossed over his chest. I couldn't make out his face in the near-darkness.

"Who the hell are you?" I demanded. "How did you get in here?" For a few moments I panicked. Was my Gwen in danger? Had Al Kaiser, after hearing my complaints about Gwen and our marriage, already dispatched a hit man—or possibly hit men—to end her life? Who else was in our home?

"Get the fuck out of my house or I'm calling the cops!" I screamed at the man, backing away as I went for my cell. I punched in 911 before he could stop me. Gwen was still alive; I had heard her voice a moment ago. To rescue Gwen I had to do something, and fast. I held the phone to my ear and heard the 911 operator ask me the nature of my emergency. I hadn't gotten any farther than to give the address to the operator when Gwen came out of our bedroom, flipped on the wall switch for the hall light and defiantly took her place beside the male intruder, glaring at me with even more contempt than she'd ever shown me before. There beside her stood my old buddy Vern. Gwen's blouse was half-open; I could see her bra. Vern casually slipped his arm around her and leered at me.

"Gary, you are such an asshole!" Gwen sneered. "Get off that goddamn cell phone before you embarrass yourself even worse. Quit being such a sorry dick for once in your life."


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