Friday, February 15, 2019

Culprits: Snake Farm

Culprits: The Heist was Just the Beginning
Edited by Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips
Polis Books – 2018

One of my favorite reads from 2018 is the anthology Culprits: The Heist was Just the Beginning, edited by Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips. I say that not because I have a story in the collection, but because the idea behind the “linked” stories intrigued me from the first time I heard about the project, and the end result is every bit as intriguing and satisfying as I hoped.

The set-up is basic: a group of criminals pulls off the theft of something big. The editors ask in the book’s Foreword, what happens after the heist? “We wanted to know what happened to the crew once the big job was over and done. Where did they go? What did they do? Who did they do it with … or to? How did they spend their cut of the loot? In other words: What happened next?”

Phillips and Brewer wrote out the heist chapter and created a crew of specialists (financier, safe-cracker, wheelman, etc.) The job is the theft of a multi-million-dollar slush fund kept by the right-wing “North Texas Citizens Improvement League” on the grounds of an eighteen-thousand-acre cattle ranch known as the Crystal Q, outside of Fort Worth.

Seven authors were contacted, and we were asked to pick a character from the descriptions provided by Phillips and Brewer. Here’s the description of the character I chose:

Vivian Dollarhyde -- a woman of color who is one of the few of the female persuasion who is often considered for these Alpha male crews. She is an expert cat burglar, as well as being a master in martial arts, climbing and parkour, all of which make her invaluable in getting in and out of tight spots.

Brett Battles, Joe Clifford, David Corbett, Gar Anthony Haywood, Jessica Kaye, Zoë Sharp
, and yours truly made up the writing gang that filled in the meat on the bones of the original descriptions. The finished product is a great read – suspense, action, duplicity, loyalty, even a bit of street-level justice. Thanks to Gary and Richard for including me.

For a taste from Culprits: a few pages from my contribution, Snake Farm.

Snake Farm
©Manuel Ramos -- all rights reserved

“It’s been almost a week and you still don’t have any leads? What the hell you doin’, Garza? It was a fuckin’ riot in the middle of the Crystal Q. At least a half-dozen assholes shot up the ranch and each other. I can’t believe that no one’s talkin’, no one knows shit.”

Antonio “Tony” Garza recognized the red hue creeping up his boss’s neck, then along his jaw, nose, finally the forehead. Big Jim Spencer’s face looked like a pudgy glob of pink bubblegum. It meant the chief of police was ready to hit something, or someone, and Garza tensed up.

“Believe it, boss. Even Harrington is playing dumb. You know what his statement said. Claimed he didn’t know what the hell happened at the house. Says he was busy with details for the party. By the time he got to where the action was, no one was left except the dead and wounded ranch hands. Then, when the feds figured out where they split up the money, the only one around was the dead guy, who no one knows, and he ain’t talking.”

He moved a few inches further from Spencer and tried to be inconspicuous.

Garza wanted to tell Big Jim that the Crystal Q wasn’t in their jurisdiction and that every North Texas agency from the FBI to the county dogcatcher claimed the case as theirs. The Kilroy Police Department wasn’t in the mix, official or otherwise. But Big Jim was convinced that some of the thieves scattered into “Kilroy’s bailiwick.” Big Jim obsessed after a headline, something to grab the attention of the suits in Austin.

“When I hired you, I thought you was an upgrade to the usual inbred mutants that wanna play cops and robbers.” Big Jim talked as slow as the tumbleweeds that bounced against the curb of Main Street. “Not by much. You ain’t exactly J. Edgar. If I hadn’t needed someone immediately, I might’ve passed you over, just ’cause your history is sketchy. But I hoped with your degree from UT and your experience over in Lubbock that you’d add somethin’ to our department. So far, I ain’t seen it. Not sure you’re all that cut out for police work.”

Garza flinched. He took the job in Kilroy because he didn’t have much choice. He needed a fresh start more urgently than Spencer needed a replacement. The trouble in Lubbock—that damn Clara Johnson, no way she was only sixteen—had driven him out of Buddy Holly’s hometown, but so far it hadn’t caught up to him in Kilroy. Clara had cost him a lot of money. Well spent, but expensive.

“We’ll get something, boss.” The words sounded hollow. “If I could lean on Harrington’s wife, Gracella, that’d be a good place to start. But I can’t even get on the ranch, much less have a one-on-one with Mrs. Harrington.”

“Do whatever you have to do. The shoot-out has stirred up too much negative attention for Texas. The damn Citizens Improvement League is making life miserable for cops. It’s bullshit politics but if you can’t get results, I’ll find somebody who can.” He slapped his palm on his desk and Garza took the cue that it was time for him to leave.

Tony drove the dinged-up department Crown Vic straight to his house. Slow but steady. The car had suffered seven years of police abuse and Garza didn’t like to test it. He was the least senior cop on the force, which meant he drew the most senior wheels. Fifteen minutes to his rented house on the edge of town and he saw all of Kilroy on the way. The four-room shack was the only place he could afford.

Vivian Dollarhyde stretched on the faded living room carpet. Her lime green workout clothes—skimpy shorts, skimpier top—popped, as she liked to say, against her skin’s sweaty glow. She’d been at it since five a.m., two hours before Tony woke up. She’d run her daily five miles in the grayness of the morning moon, safe from prying eyes who might wonder about the dark-haired, obviously not-white stranger. Then for ninety minutes she tormented the used elliptical and a few weights Tony kept for those rare times he thought he should exercise. She finished with yoga twists and Pilate stretches. Tony tried not to think about it but he imagined himself jumping on her prone body and burying himself in the sanctuary of her overheated flesh.

“Hey, baby,” he said. “Looks like you could use a drink.” It wasn’t quite lunchtime.

He opened the refrigerator, extracted two Lone Stars, twisted their caps, and offered her one. She chugged half of the bottle before she looked at him.

“I have to get out of this town. I’m going nuts.” She sat at the rickety table and patted her body dry with a gray towel she’d found in a closet.

“You just got here, Vivian. What’s the rush? Besides, it’s way too hot, and I’m not talking about the weather. Every brand and style of cop is all over this part of Texas. From Fort Worth to the Oklahoma state line. South to Waco and west to Abilene. It’s like a war zone. Anyone even just a little bit off is getting rousted by state police, Rangers, you name it. You and your pals riled up more law enforcement than we’ve seen around here since they shot JFK.”

“How the hell would you know that? You’re older than me but you ain’t that old.”

“Whatever. I’m just sayin’.”

Vivian wadded the towel into a ball. “That goddamn pilot.”

"Oh, Christ. Here we go again.”

“You don’t like it, get out.”

He thought about reminding her that they were in his house. He kept quiet.

“I got the right to complain. Ellison tried to kill us and he almost made off with all the money. O’Conner should’ve never let him in on the job. But the old man’s getting soft. I should’ve told him to fuck off when he said he needed me. Practically begged. Said I’d get a bigger share since I had special skills. What bullshit. All the good that share is doing me now. Can’t even buy myself a decent steak. Hell, not even a hamburger.”

She stood up, dropped the towel on the floor and headed for the shower in the narrow bathroom. She lifted the tank top over her head and turned to Garza. “None of it would’ve happened without me. Seven million. Now look where I am.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Stuck in this pissant town, as far as I could go after the shit hit the fan, a bag of money that I can’t use, sharing a bed with your horny ass. Story of my life.” She disappeared into the bathroom, grumbling to herself.

Tony thought about joining her in the shower but decided the mood wasn’t quite right. Vivian liked to play. But she was too wrapped up in her trouble. Too focused on how she was going to get out of the state with her money without confronting the cops or the guy who’d double-crossed the crew at the safe house. Or maybe she wanted to deal her own justice to the pilot.

She’s crazy enough to blow it all on revenge, he thought.

He again looked around the shack for any sign of the money but it was a fruitless search. She’d promised him a cut of her take, although she hadn’t said where she had it stashed or even how much she had. Tony calculated it was more than a hundred grand, easy. Maybe half a mil, maybe a million? There had to be mountains of money at the Crystal Q.

She’d told him that after it went cockeyed in Fort Worth, O’Conner dropped her off on the edgy outskirts of town. Cops everywhere, no time for long goodbyes. She left the shotgun from the job with O’Conner—too conspicuous to carry around—and she hadn’t brought anything else from her own collection of guns since O’Conner provided all the equipment she thought she’d need. She didn’t like the way she felt without a weapon but accepted it as part of her situation.

She’d run long and hard to the only person she knew in Texas who would take her in. On the point of exhaustion, she found Garza in Kilroy. Her toned body, strong lungs, parkour training, and iron will carried her across the wind-scarred merciless Texas prairie without much water or food. She described how she hid from police helicopters and curious coyotes and she cursed that she couldn’t quit thinking about how it had all gone bad.

Over the years he’d tried to stay in contact. He always had a cell number or email address for her except when she was on the run or sweating out the latest fallout from one of her jobs.

She never failed to circle back to him. Her career, as she called her sins and crimes, didn’t bother him. Vivian was the forbidden fruit, the type of girl his mama warned him about. Good thing he’d let her know he was leaving Lubbock. Here she was, in all her half-naked glory, relying on him to keep her safe and hidden from the heat with more money than he would ever make in Kilroy and all he had to do was bide his time until she made her move. Then he would get his share. Or maybe, take it all.

(continued in Culprits: The Heist was Just the Beginning.)



Manuel Ramos writes crime fiction.  His latest is The Golden Havana Night (Arte Público Press.)

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