Untitled Novel. Chapter 1.

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The air was still and nasty. Sticky and filled with bugs fucking in flight and smelling like rotting vegetation. Swamp air.

Two police officers stood side by side outside the long-abandoned mini-mart. One cop was older. Fiftyish. Balding. Sloppy.

Garrett.

“That plastic bottle straight across the way,” Garrett said with a point.

The other cop was younger. Not young enough to be bright-eyed. Healthy. Sort of. His name was Mike.

Garrett tore into a danish. Mike chomped on a stick of jerky with one hand and hoisted his piece with the other.

“Dinner at iHop,” Garrett said.

Mike closed his left eye, paused mid-chew, steadied his aim, and squeezed off a round that splintered up chips of the limestone-paved street just wide of the plastic soda bottle.

Shit, Mike said, holstering his gun.

“Chocolate chip pancakes always taste better when I ain’t the one payin’,” Garrett mumbled through a mouth full of pastry. “My fuckin’ turn. We goin’ double or nothin’?”

Mike frowned. “Dang, I don’t know. You been hittin’ em lately. I’m tired of takin’ your ass out to dinner.”

“Well, you already are, so now you got the chance to not. Worst case you’re just addin’ dessert to a meal you already owe me.”

Mike spit out a piece of gristle. “Fine.”

Garrett raised his own piece, chambered a round, and fired off a shot that ended up missing on the opposite side of the bottle.

“Well fuck that.”

“I’ll be damned,” Mike said with a chuckle.

***

Both men chewed and stared across the parking lot, across the street, and through the palmettos and pines in the distance. Garrett’s radio crackled. A hoarse, crusty, mildly effeminate voice squelched out.

“Anyone out there near the Pick n’ Go? We’ve got a twenty-one, nine…”

Garrett clicked off his radio. “Too early for this shit,” he said, shielding his eyes from an afternoon sun that his sunglasses couldn’t entirely shade. Mike smacked his arm at a bead of sweat he thought was a bug. His fingers lingered and he started scratching.

“Still got that itch?” Garrett said.

“Kept me up all night.”

“Still no idea what’s up with it?”

“Nah. No bumps, no rash. Ain’t red unless I scratch it too much. Goin’ on two weeks now. I don’t get it.”

“Nerves?”

“Ain’t got nothin’ to be nervous for,” Mike answered while he continued scratching his arm through his dark blue sleeve.

“You tweakin’? You get into that nasty shit?” Garrett asked.

“Man, look at my eyes,” Mike said, looking at his partner for the first time. “If I was methed out, I’d be all over the place, not dead ass tired, I can’t even…”

“Easy, deputy. Just givin’ you shit.”

“I’m just sick of this dumb itch. Pain in my ass. And everywhere else.”

Mike rolled up his sleeve to get a better scratch.

“Well, that’s what doctors are for,” Garrett said.

“It’s silly to go for an itch.”

“Sillier to scratch yourself raw.”

Garrett took another bite of his pastry. His gaze moved past the snack to movement a couple hundred yards down the road. Something on the road. He squinted through his sunglasses and saw a man wearing baggy jeans and filth and nothing else. The man had something slung over his shoulder. Garrett watched the figure for a moment.

“Speakin’ of tweakin’,” Garrett said. Mike kept scratching but looked up. Squinted himself.

“Is that?” Mike asked.

“Dirty Luke.”

“Well shit. Now what do you suppose he’s doin’ way the fuck out here?”

“I ain’t got a clue.”

Dirty Luke walked toward the cops in lumbering, crooked stagger. A few steps, a small circle, a moment of yelling up at the sky, and then the same all over again. Still a decent trot down the road.

Mike stopped scratching and shielded his eyes for a better look. “He’s fucked up for sure.”

Dirty Luke, bag still over shoulder, walked to the middle of the road, squatted, and started screaming.

“What do you suppose he’s got in that bag?” Mike continued.

“Whatever it is,” said Garrett, “there ain’t a chance in hell it belongs to him. Even from here I can tell that bag’s outta his league.”

The older cop tossed his danish wrapper to the ground. “I s’pose we should go play cops and have a look” he said with a nod toward the screaming man hopping like a frog. The two men left the shade and headed out across the washed-out parking lot.

***

“God dang, it’s hot,” said Garrett.

“Maybe we should leave him,” said Mike.

“Nah. Look at the bastard.”

Luke squatted and yelled up at the sky, then leap-frogged into the middle of the street.

“Someone in a big ol’ truck is liable to pass through and flatten the son of a bitch without ever even seein’ him. Or feelin’ a bump.”

The officers stopped about fifty feet short of Luke, who gave no indication that he had seen the men.

“Luke!” yelled Garrett. “The hell you doin’ way out here?”

They walked until they were close enough to see froth around Luke’s mouth. Mike chuckled. “He looks like a rabid possum. Spinnin’ round and all foamin’ at the mouth and whatnot.” He pulled a pair of heavy latex gloves out and stretched them on.

“Don’t let him bite me, Garrett!” Mike joked. They spread apart with caution and flanked the man.

“Luke,” Garrett tried again. “Anyone home in there?”

Luke looked at the men for the first time, but only for a moment before staring back up at the sky and tripping over his own feet and stumbling like a lame horse.

Garrett put his hand on his Taser and stood at a safe distance while Mike approached, hands up and open and welcoming and friendly.

“Alright,” Mike said. “We just wanna talk.”

“I get the feelin’ we ain’t gettin’ much out of Luke right this minute,” said Garrett with a grin.

Mike moved close enough to touch, and slowly reached for the bag.

“Let’s just put this aside for the moment.”

Luke spun wildly and clawed at the officer, nearly scratching his face.

“Whoa, bud. Calm down. We ain’t tryin’ to hurt you. Just put the bag down.”

Luke mumbled. Foam spilled from his lips. He spun around again and jumped back like he had just noticed the other officer for the first time.

“Take a step back,” Garrett said. “I’m just gonna taze his ass. Too damn hot for this shit.”

Mike backed off and Garrett shot Luke with the Taser and then Luke let go of the bag and it slid off his shoulder and hit the road with a thunk a second before he crumpled to the road with the same sound.

“What a waste of a man,” Garrett said while Mike slapped cuffs on the shirtless, groaning man writhing on the dirty asphalt. Mike dragged him roughly to the shoulder and sat him up and then stood and sucked in the hot, wet air, trying to catch his breath. Garrett lit up a smoke and Mike glanced at the gym bag and Garrett saw him and said “Check out the bag. An’ watch for needles. Remember what happened to ol’ Lou.”

“Shit, don’t remind me,” Mike replied, still as the air. “Actually yessir, I’d rather think about that for ten seconds than go through what that sonofabitch had to.”

“You’re welcome,” Garrett chuckled, then went back to his smoke.

Mike dragged himself through the heat back to where Dirty Luke had dropped the gym bag. Mopped his brow with his collar and, still gloved, carefully pulled up on the bag by the shoulder strap. It was heavier than he expected it to be so he carried it out of the road and dropped it back down. He made sure there weren’t any needles poking through the fabric, then slowly yanked the zipper and pried the opening enough to look inside. The police officer stared into the void at more money than he had ever seen in his entire life. Stacks of hundreds, in bands of ten thousand.

“Sweet motherfuckin’ Lord,” he said under his breath. He looked up at Garrett, smoking away a few dozen feet up the road. Looked back into the bag. Stuck his hand in with less caution and pushed a few of the stacks around, quickly counting out a dozen with more to go before looking up at Garrett again. Hand still in the bag and eyes moving from Garrett to Luke, Mike felt something like a plastic hand shaking his own hand from the depths and he pulled it half out to get a better look since it was decidedly the only thing inside that he had touched so far that wasn’t a brick of money.

He saw the thing and realized why it felt like a hand; it was a hand. Actually, two hands. Two hands chopped off clean and sloshing around in a clear plastic bag like a couple of steaks in marinade.