To make a living he builds and maintains housing for recovering addicts and along the way he’s employed a number of his clients. The men wrestle with the siren call of drugs and teach Lorado about the difficult struggle to stay clean one day at a time.
When these two worlds come together, Lorado learns that not every elderly person dies of natural causes and that some estates are sold to benefit a killer. His latest project hits close to home. A woman he’s known since childhood haunts him from a fresh grave. Her grandson, an affable addict who has fallen off the wagon, stands to inherit a considerable sum whether he deserves it or not.
February 17th. Nineteen degrees on a Friday night and I was tucked in a dead lady’s bed trying to convince myself the pressure in my gut wasn’t worth risking the cold oak and then the bathroom tiles. Sound miserable? Not for me. I wasn’t thinking about the punk heir or how silly I looked in a pink comforter covered with big red roses. I was a pig, belly deep in mud. No part of me wanted to move because I’d been treasure hunting all day. Everything was sore, especially my right elbow, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
You’re probably laughing. Picturing a fat guy in a pink blanket who fancied himself a pirate. I was no swashbuckler. Unwanted treasure was my specialty. New England might not have had gold or oil, but it was packed with loot.
My ancestors were either cowards or laggards. They landed on the Mayflower and walked inland far enough to get away from the Atlantic storm surge, but not so far they couldn’t run back to the boat if the Indians attacked. I couldn’t run back. I could walk if I lost a few pounds. Okay, probably not.
Every winter New Englanders dreamed of moving to Florida or South Carolina. Adventurous souls picked some island the rest of us had never heard of like Turks and Caicos. Not me. The South Coast was exactly where I belonged. New Bedford was the whaling capital of the world. Every old geezer who croaked had some scrimshaw or an oil lamp or something that had been around a few hundred years.
In the old days people had a bottle dump at the back corner of the foundation. Old timers scoured the woods and picked through old homesteads that had rotted into the ground. My grandparents took me along sometimes. They built tiers of wooden shelves in their cellar, a spooky mildew-coated place that had one of the last stone foundations built in the area. They collected thousands of bottles from two-toned brown jugs to tiny blue medicine bottles. One day I found a Fairbanks & Beard soda bottle and my grandfather gave me ten bucks for it. Ten bucks for something I dug out of the ground! I was hooked.
I didn’t wait for houses to fall down and their foundations to fill with leaves like my grandparents did. Yuppie kids called me even before their last parent was buried. They saw a house worth two hundred thousand, some cash, and investments. They browsed the jewelry and they were done. The rest of the stuff was just in the way. A bunch of junk that kept them from the big score. They wanted everything gone so buyers could start looking at the house.
That was my domain. All the stuff they didn’t want. Some of it was worth a whole lot more than that old F & B bottle with the green glass and jagged top. My last thirty years were dedicated to learning the difference.
At forty miles per hour I could spot a barrel of Lincoln Logs in somebody’s trash and slam the brakes in time to swing around and pick them out before the garbage truck got there. Put me in an old lady’s house and I was in heaven.
Everyone had some useless crap that never should have been made in the first place. Once that was gone, every single thing left was useful to somebody. The trick was matching them up. Every fork, can opener, end table, and cheesy 1970’s lamp was dying to make someone happy.
In about a week I could have a house open for sale. Posted on Craigslist. In the Standard Times classifieds. A cardboard sign on every main road.
The people would fill the place shoulder to shoulder. Browsing. Smiling and sharing reminders of their childhood. Kids would pick up useless junk and laugh. An hour later an old lady would buy the very same piece. Young and old alike were struck with a combination of nostalgia and bargain fever, but every person who walked through the door had one problem. They were all trying to forget someone died in that house not long ago.
Death never bothered me much.
There’s nothing wrong with dead stuff. Road kill could make a great hat if the bumper didn’t poke a hole in the pelt. It was awful hard to mess up a raccoon’s tail with a car and those rings looked pisser dangling down the back of your neck. When you were seventeen anyway. Or maybe twenty. The raccoon didn’t care. He was gone.
People were different. They knew death was coming and didn’t want to entertain the thought any longer than necessary. Sometimes they got angry when they died. Sometimes I could feel it. That night working in Mrs. Newbury’s house I swore the old lady was watching me. And she wasn’t happy about me rummaging through her stuff.
It wasn’t like she didn’t know I was coming. My parents had known her a long time. They went to school together back when Rochester kids went to New Bedford High. Decades ago.
A year ago she’d hired me to replace her kitchen cabinets. And she walked me through the house when I was done. Showed me her treasures. Pieces of scrimshaw squirreled away in the attic. Plates I had to Google to find out what they were worth. Mrs. Newbury had some great stuff. She knew her grandson, Newb, wouldn’t appreciate any of it. Her telling me was a sign she wanted me to make sure the valuable pieces weren’t thrown away.
Sometime between showing me her house and dying, she’d gotten angry and decided to take it out on my stomach. Maybe I was sleeping on Mr. Newbury’s side of the bed, but that shouldn’t have mattered. They were together in Heaven. Or at least they should have been.
Maybe she’d changed her mind about me selling her stuff to strangers. The closet cramped with fifty years of floral dresses and skirts. Two bureaus overflowing with scarves and socks and underwear. Boxes, purses, and shoe trees pressed into every available space. The clutter slumped against the walls parted just enough to reveal the oak flooring along the weaving path Mrs. Newbury followed to the bathroom. The night light’s glow gleamed off those precious few boards and my gaze fell there as I struggled to sleep in spite of being haunted.
Old people got out of bed to pee a lot. Well, they couldn’t pee a lot, that’s why they got up so often. Anyway, the thing they feared most was a fall at night when no one could hear them and come to help. If you’d seen my big blue coffee cup you’d know I needed to get up a time or two myself. And at three hundred twenty pounds, when I fell there was damage. So I left the night light on even though I wasn’t keen on anyone seeing me wrapped in the old lady’s pink comforter. I’d have been under the pink sheets and rose-patterned blankets, too, if I wasn’t so worried about bedbugs. The look wouldn’t have changed. Only the temperature.
It’d be just like Roxie to swing by for a little action and snap a picture from the doorway. She was a whiz with the Internet. She’d email it to all our friends before I could get dressed and chase her home.
Giving her a key to job sites was a risk, but who knows what’d happen in those old neighborhoods. Junkies read the obits. They’d hack out every length of copper from the cellar if they thought no one was home. If they caught me sleeping and roughed me up, maybe she’d call the cops and save my ass. More likely she’d come by to give me a piece of hers. Sadly, three days after Valentine’s my stomach hurt so much I hoped she wouldn’t come.
My gut rumbled and I pulled the comforter tighter. Damned unromantic.
Wind whistled against the toothless exterior and found its way in through gaps around the windows. I’d pitched the kid a siding and window replacement job, but the only thing the vulture wanted was his grandmother’s place gone in a rush. Forsythia slapped the shingles and tickled the glass. The bushes could have been cut back enough in a day so you could see the street from the windows. The briars and scrub out back mowed with a brush cutter in three hours. Two hundred bucks to triple the yard and jack up the sale price at least three times that. No deal. No cash was going into grandma’s house. He wanted me to wring out every penny. Every cent he could get without lifting a finger or spending a dime.
Thankless cheapskate I worked for. Even worse when he worked for me.
A knot in my gut twisted so tight I forgot my annoyance with the kid.
The cramps forced me to wrestle out of the comforter and lumber down the path, hunched over in the dark, cradling my gut in my arms. On my second step, something jabbed the meat of my right foot. It pressed in so deeply, I hopped and crashed my right shoulder into the doorframe.
I swiped at the sole of my foot, feeling for blood, expecting a staple or a tack. A bit of broken plastic was all I found. It bounced into a corner for me to step on again later. The jostling hurt so much I thought my stomach was going to erupt horizontally. I wished I’d just kept walking and let the plastic burrow its way in. It would have been a lot less painful.
Four hobbled steps carried me through the hall into a bathroom that had been designed for tiny old people. Her toilet was wedged in a corner between the closet and the window. I leaned against the wall. Ignored the ceramic toilet paper dispenser digging into my knee. The cold air rushing through the window. Balanced there in the dark, the pain radiated lower.
Giving birth had to feel like this. It hurt too much to push. It hurt too much not to push.
The contents of my bowels willed themselves free with a liquid rush that went on far longer than should have been humanly possible. Stuff I’d eaten days ago freed itself from my body in a torrent that released so much pressure it felt as good as any orgasm.
Then my entire body seized in a cramp that folded me in half.
Women complain about cramps like it’s the end of the world. If this was what having a period was like, I’d take back every menstrual joke I ever told.
Forty minutes later I was still sitting there with the seat jammed so firmly into my backside the impression wouldn’t fade for a week. I’ll spare you the details, but stuff kept squirting out of me until I swore my intestines were inside out, hanging down there in the bowl getting a rinse.
I hate doctors almost as much as I hate health plans and the government sponsored socialist crap that forced me to pay for something I didn’t want so some lowlife could get free healthcare. My right elbow had hurt for two years before that night and I hadn’t seen a doctor yet. I’d rather wake up wincing in pain than pay some rich boy two hundred bucks to talk with me for seven minutes.
That night it hurt so badly I might have called an ambulance if I could have gotten my pants back on. Might have driven myself in if I could have taken a step away from the porcelain throne, but I was tethered by unrelenting cramps and the fear of my insides splashing all over everything if I stood up.
I clutched my gut and leaned forward, praying that somehow the pain would pass and I’d make it back to bed. Sleep would set me right. Little did I know sleep was coming in a rush. A nasty cramp hunched me right over forward and my foot slipped.
The bolt of pain in my groin erased any memory of the cramps. Blinding, mind-erasing pain that only men experience. My arms shot down to catch myself on the seat and free my crushed testicle.
The toilet seat broke free under my weight and I leapfrogged forward. The sharp edge of the vanity creased my forehead. That was the last pain I felt that night. My vision faded like an old tube TV, closing in from the outside to a point of light. As I lost consciousness I had the distinct feeling the old woman was cackling with delight.
C.J. West is the author of seven suspense novels including The End of Marking Time and Sin and Vengeance, which was optioned into development for film by Beantown Productions, LLC (screenplay by Marla Cukor).