Litro #146: Whodunnit?

Cover Art: Oh Sweet Death by Cassandra Yap


Letter from the Editor by Eric Akoto

A Remembrance Day Service by Barry Sheils

Break Down by C. J. Timmins

The Line Up by Russ Litten

Burn Down The House by Michael McGlade

Selbstmord by Simon Barget

The Telephone Museum by Felicity Hughes

Author Q&A with Darcey Steinke

The Whodunnit? issue Litro#146.
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Whodunnit?:Burn Down the House

Private Investigator

Marlon Monroe was shoehorned onto a bench between a wedge-shaped man with bruises that ringed his eyes like coffee stains and a pregnant woman who reeked of booze. No free seats left in the cramped waiting room. Coughs and splutters, walking aides and neck braces. Latino, Chicano, Salvadorian, Guatemalan. Marlon, the only latte, had short dark hair, a weekend’s worth of stubble, and an off-the-rack suit that never saw an iron. The only men he knew who ever ironed were Navy SEALs. Outside, an ambulance wept by.
“Mr. Monroe,” the secretary said with a smile.
Marlon entered a cramped office that had no carpet or drapes. Stacks of files teetered against unpainted walls. Seth Levi sat at his desk, hair like rusted steel wool and a tailored navy pinstripe suit.
“I like your new office,” Marlon said. “Just a block away from the hospital.”
“I go where the money is,” Seth conceded.
“I know. I’ve seen your commercials on late night cable. Medical malpractice, nursing home abuse, workman’s comp, auto accidents- get what’s yours.”
“Ouch. Retract your claws, ok. It pays the bills. But I’d have thought you must have plenty of peaceful nights now you don’t dine with your police scanner on the table.”
Marlon’s blue eyes sparked.
Seth opened a drawer, slapped a thick dossier on the desk and leafed to a page. “Yesterday, a house burnt down in the city of Dublin, California, yaddy-yaddy-yah … oh this bit’s interesting, the owner, one Mr Tomas Lynch, 71-years-old, deceased, God rest his soul, natural causes, leaves a sizeable estate but no will.” Seth paused to let the information sink in. “Find me next of kin, bring them in, we split the finder’s fee.”
Marlon frowned.
“What? Not high level enough?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Consider it lucky I’m still friends with you and as a friend I am willing to offer you a lifeline, unlike certain acquaintances in SFPD, who think you’re toxic waste. This is paid work, my friend.”
“Doesn’t mean I have to like it.” Marlon grabbed the page with the details of the job and walked out of the office. He stepped out onto the sidewalk on the corner of 24th and Potrero. Workmen on a scissor lift bolted a sign above the premises: Seth Levi Law Offices – Get What’s Yours! SF General on one end of the street and Bayshore Freeway on the other. Warm and sunny in the Mission, same as always. Marlon got into a Toyota with two hundred thousand miles on the clock and beyond the Mission District a foggy stew ghosted San Francisco city.
Marlon scanned through the printout from a next of kin search in the Public Records Office. He thumbed a number into his cell phone, took a deep breath and dialled. “Parker, it’s me.”
“Monroe? Never thought I’d hear from you again.”
“I need a favor.”
“Anything. Anything at all. You name it, buddy.”
“Submit too quick like that, it’s a sure sign of guilt.”
“I feel awful about what happened, Marlon. I really do. I didn’t think…”
“It’s the best thing could have happened me. I’m my own boss, now.”
“You always land on your feet. Got your PI license and everything?”
“Run a records search on Jerry Lynch, born 05/12/67, Alameda County. I need an address.”
Detective Parker entered the details into the system. “You’re in luck,” he said. “The address is CA 94974.”
“San Quentin prison?”

Marlon sat at a table in a prison meeting room. A man with longish, slicked-back hair hung his head in hands and wept. His cuffs and shackles played like sad maracas. A file lay open before Jerry Lynch.
“One point two million dollars,” Marlon said. “It’s all yours, well, it is in ten years when you get out.”
“He never named me in the will,” Jerry said.
“You’re his only heir. Naming wasn’t necessary.”
“Or he thinks I really done it.” Jerry met Marlon’s eyes. “I didn’t murder Donna Lindberg.”
“If you’ll just sign this document,” Marlon held out a pen, “then we can get the paperwork in order to sign over the estate.”
“You found me pretty easy, didn’t you, Mr Monroe?”
“Sure, I guess. Got some friends still like to do me favors.”
“How much would it cost to get me out of here?”
“I just deliver files, not cakes with files in them.”
“Can’t you find some fresh evidence, do whatever you PIs do?”
“As much as I’d like to take your money, I don’t think I can help.”
“I’ve been sentenced to twenty-five years for something I didn’t do,” Jerry said. “At least listen to my side of the story.”
“Ok,” Marlon said.
“Donna Lindberg was murdered in 1995. Nineteen-years-old. Lived on a farm. Her body was found two hundred yards along a dirt track near her home.”
“Who found the body?”
“Some volunteer fireman called Moore. The thing is, the house had been set on fire, which attracted the authorities. I figure the killer was covering his tracks, getting his prints out of the house, y’know?”
“Were you involved with Donna?”
“No, but she worked in a bank where I went to cash a check,” Jerry said. “I’d been drinking heavy for a few weeks and needed money. They wouldn’t cash my check and I recall saying you people are parasites and you should be wiped out. Dumb thing to say. I was arrested a few hours later for disorderly conduct, spent a night in the cells. The evening after my release, Donna was murdered.”
“No alibi?”
“I was hung-over. I went home and spent the evening alone in my apartment. The thing is, I never seen Donna before my arrest. She worked in the bank, but I had never been in contact with her.”
“Why were you drinking?”
“My wife filed for divorce.” Jerry’s eyes were hollow and blank like a man who had outlived a life sentence. “I have some files in my cell. You’ll need them. Everything else was stored in my dad’s house.”

Seth was sat behind his desk and faced a man who looked like he wrestled bears. Seth opened a drawer, selected one of the many-sized neck braces, and threw it to the man.
Marlon entered.
“You’re entitled to money damages,” Seth continued. “You fell on business property. You need compensation because you’re an innocent victim. You can’t afford to pay all those costly medical expenses.” Seth threw a business card to the man, whose eyes followed it like a setter. “See my doctor.”
The man walked toward the door.
“And learn to limp,” Seth said.
“How did you get into this business?” Marlon asked.
“I wasn’t big enough to be a bully,” Seth said. “Popping a few kids probably would have gotten it out of my system, but I was short and ginger … and here we are.”
“I’m going to look into the Jerry-Lynch-Donna-Lindberg thing,” Marlon said. “It’s over in Alameda County, just outside Dublin city. About forty miles away.”
“Don’t waste your time on it.”
“Donna was severely beaten and stabbed. Multiple bite marks on her body. If Lynch didn’t do it, then someone’s still out there, maybe doing the same thing.”
“Still a sucker for a damsel in distress.” Seth stood, walked around the desk and led Marlon to the door. “Let me treat you to a porterhouse steak for a quick turnaround on the finder’s fee case, but this talk of investigating a fifteen-year-old case is done with, ok?”

Marlon stumbled into his apartment and ricocheted off the bookcases that lined the hallway. Large gaps in the library; dust marks where books had been removed. He flopped onto the couch, spun the cap off a bottle of Jameson’s and swallowed a mouthful. He glanced at a photo of him hugging his fiancée, Kimberly. He dialled a number on the phone and said, “I miss you.”
“You’re drunk,” Kimberly said.
“I finished my first case today. I’m celebrating.”
“You’ve got to stop doing this. Stop calling me at four AM.”
“Someone stole your books out of the apartment.”
“They’re mine and I took them back. I’m moving on with my life.”
She hung up. Marlon took a long swallow of whiskey, dialled another number.
“We need to talk.”
“What time is it?” Seth asked.
“Lynch’s conviction was based entirely on the testimony of some dentist who matched the bite marks on Donna’s body to Jerry. There’s no other physical evidence tying him to the crime. And the defense’s own expert disputed this dentist’s findings… Are you still there?”
“Talk to me tomorrow when my eyes are able to stay open and I’m mostly sober.”

Seth sat at his desk, head in hands. “I should have you flogged for summoning me from my coffin at this hour.”
“Dr Edwards was the lynchpin of the conviction,” Marlon said. “He testified that the seven bite marks found on Donna were consistent with dental impressions taken from Jerry. No other physical evidence linked him to the crime. The district attorney had one other piece of circumstantial evidence from Jerry’s ex-wife who said he had once bitten her.”
“Ok, there are holes, I’m not denying that,” Seth said.
“Tell me what you think about Dr Edwards’ evidence.”
“From a purely legal standpoint,” Seth said, “bite marks, blood-splatter patterns, ballistics, analysis of hair, fiber and handwriting- all sound compelling in the courtroom, but forensic science is a lot of loosey-goosey stuff. I get people off all the time because this evidence is the highly subjective analysis of people with minimal credentials. Most of these experts don’t even have advanced degrees.”

Marlon scanned through the phonebook: Dr Edwards wasn’t listed. He checked online and found nothing. The Public Records Office wouldn’t open for another two hours. Marlon turned the key in the car ignition and the Toyota coughed blue smoke. He headed north, skirted around Chinatown and got on Vallejo Street. He found his way to the Central Police Station on automatic, like a homing pigeon, could have done it with his eyes shut he knew the streets so well.
He entered homicide detective Eric Parker’s cubicle and sat next to him. “See what you can find on a Dr Edwards for me.”
“Nice to see you, too.” Parker accessed the system and entered the details. “You going to make a habit of this—?”
“Look who it is,” Zimmerman said from across the room. All eyes were on Marlon. “Is your new case a shakedown on the latest Victoria’s Secret catalogue?” Most of the men laughed. Zimmerman registered the hard edge to Marlon’s stare and sat back down at his desk.
“I’m real sorry I let slip about your … secret,” Parker said. Marlon didn’t answer. The search results appeared on Parker’s monitor. “Edwards died five years back.”
Marlon left. He called directory assistance and got connected to Dublin Police Service. He asked for all the files on the Lynch case to be forwarded. He went to a diner across the street and had cut into a stack of pancakes when his phone rang.
“This is Assistant Sheriff Scott, in charge of Dublin Police Services. You’re investigating the murder of Donna Lindberg in 1995?”
Marlon set his fork down. “I need the police reports and everything else you have on the case—”
“That’s a long time ago.”
“I can count.”
“So, Mr Lynch wants to lodge another failed appeal?”
“He maintains his innocence. Fifteen years, now.”
“Murderer-rapists, they’re impossible to rehabilitate. He put that girl through hell.”
“Someone did, I know that much. Maybe there’s something in your file that’s been missed.”
“You’re wasting your time.”
“You don’t know that—”
“In actuality, I do. I’m staring at the file right now.”
“In your office?”
“Why is the assistant Sheriff of Alameda County personally calling—?”
“The files are being forwarded to you as we speak, Detective Monroe.”
Marlon chewed the inside of his cheek. “I’m not a detective anymore.”
“I know.”

Seth finished reading the police report. “There’s nothing here.”
“Exactly. There was no background search conducted on Donna, who her previous boyfriends were, or if she was even dating someone at the time of the murder.”
“What else have you got?”
“The volunteer firefighter, who went to the house to put out the fire, discovered Donna’s body two hundred yards away down a dirt track.”
“He’s nosey and he’s too good at his job — next.”
“Assistant Sheriff Scott called me, personally.”
“Ok, I know you’re trying to redeem your tattered career but Lynch isn’t the case to do it with.”
“I want to visit the crime scene, get a fresh perspective. I’ll need some gas money.”

Marlon parked near the library and watched a circular building that housed various civic and municipal offices and the Dublin City Police Department. A two-story building with balconies. He glassed the building with a pair of powerful binoculars and searched for surveillance cameras. He checked his wristwatch. It was after seven in the evening. He drove east through the city past Fallon Sports Park and onto Jordan Ranch Drive. Two miles of uneven cement road led to the Lindberg farm and home, which had been abandoned since the fire. Marlon walked around. Jimson weeds had sprouted through the charred carcass of the house and the gravel yard lay undisturbed except for a set of tire tracks. Wider than his, maybe from an SUV. Someone had been there recently.
Marlon followed along a dirt track for two hundred yards to the location of Donna’s corpse. He was in a hollow that hid him from the house and the ranch road.
Marlon returned to the police department. He put on a pair of leather gloves and a baseball cap. He approached the side of the building, opened his briefcase case and took out a rope with a grappling hook. He climbed onto the first floor balcony. The offices were dark, un-peopled. He opened an unlocked window and climbed inside.
He moved through the office, entered the hallway and made his way toward the end where the sheriff’s office was. Voices from the stairwell. Officers on the front desk were at the bottom of the stairs. Marlon entered the sheriff’s office and scanned the contents of the desk and drawers. Nothing. The metal filing cabinet was locked and he opened it with a pick. He flicked through the files, found one marked Lynch, Jerry and switched on his digital camera.

Marlon parked on a side street and read over the files. Evidence had been suppressed from the files forwarded to him by the assistant sheriff. The original investigation noted that Donna had a boyfriend called Robert Moore. They had broken up two months before the murder. Robert was part of an entourage to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg as part of a junior UN delegation. Bobbie had an airtight alibi. But his brother wasn’t quite as clean. Andy Moore was Bobbie’s brother. Andy had been the volunteer firefighter who put in the call about the house fire at the Lindberg farm. Andy was the guy who discovered Donna’s dead body. According to the report, the police had questioned Andy about the incident but let him go. It had never been mentioned during the trial or since.
Marlon flipped open his notebook, which contained Andy Moore’s home address in San Leandro. Andy was now the Alameda County Fire Chief. Marlon drove to Moore’s house in San Leandro, a mock-Georgian building on the outskirts of town set in five acres of private land walled off and gated. Marlon watched the entrance gate. Time passed. He fetched a magazine and leafed through the pages of a lingerie catalogue. He stopped at a page, admired the lacing, and turned down the corner.
He dialed a number on his cell. “I was just thinking about you.”
“You’re on a stakeout,” Kimberly said.
“You know me too well.”
“I thought I knew you…” She cleared her throat. “I used to worry myself sick when you went on stakeouts.”
“And now you don’t?”
She thought for a long moment. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
She hung up.
An SUV exited the estate. Marlon followed it east on I-580. The SUV exited the freeway, entered a park and continued along a lane lined with cypress trees. Andy Moore got out, entered Dublin Cemetery and made his way to a grave — Donna Lindberg’s grave. He lit a cigarette, smoked it to the finish and placed the remains in a little silver case, which he put in jacket pocket. Moore returned to his SUV, drove back to San Leandro and onto East 15th Street to the Alameda County Fire Department administration office.
Marlon’s cell rang.
“Ok, this is interesting,” Seth said. “Robert Moore is a California State Senator. It pays to have an alrightnik brother. I think Senator Bobbie had a conversation with assistant sheriff Scott, forced him to keep shtoom about our little murder-rape situation and its connection to an outstanding and prominent member of the community. If we’re gonna do what I think we’re gonna do, we need Andy the Arsonist’s DNA.”

Moore exited the Fire Department administration office after the sun had set and got into his SUV. The offices appeared to be staffed fully twenty-four hours a day. Marlon tailed Moore to a bald-tire joint on the edge of town. Moore entered the bar.
Marlon smelt the all-night coffee and sweat on his wrinkled clothes. He glanced at his travel bag, unzipped and took out a change of outfit.
Marlon entered the bar dressed in a black skirt that came to the knees, stilettos and a brunette shoulder-length wig. He was more than passable as a female impersonator. He slid into a booth and watched his target in the bar mirror. Moore was sat by himself at the bar, jacket draped across the back of his seat.
Two scruffy guys in leather vests with Laffing Devil patches and hunter-green brain buckets stared at Marlon. Nomad bikers probably passing through with no backup. The thatch-faced one slid into Marlon’s booth with the sour reek of riding all week in leather chaps.
“Hey, darlin’, ain’t seen you around here before.”
Marlon ignored the guy. Moore had finished another cigarette and placed the butt in his little silver case. He took the first slug of his bottle of beer to empty it by a third.
“Don’t be shy, sweetheart,” the biker said. “I won’t bite … unless you want me to.” He laughed like a broken cement mixer.
Moore stood, walked toward the back of the bar and then out of sight. Marlon went to the bar and dropped his handbag to look like an accident. He bent for it, reached inside Moore’s jacket and removed the little silver case.
“Hey, whatcha at, darlin’?” The man from the booth came behind Marlon and put his hand on Marlon’s shoulder, which knocked Marlon’s wig loose. Marlon dashed out of the door.
“It’s some sort of queer,” the man said and followed Marlon outside. His buddy came along. Marlon fumbled at the keys in the door of his car. The two men came on him. “I’m gon’ teach you some manners, dirty faggot—”
Marlon struck the man’s solar plexus. He collapsed like a sack of flour. Marlon glanced at the other man, who backed up and ran away.
“Sissy.” Marlon straightened his wig and dress.

Seth spoke into his office intercom: “It’s lay-vee, not lee-vie like the jeans.”
Marlon entered and set Moore’s stolen silver pocket ashtray on the desk.
“You made sure he can’t connect you to this artifact?”
“It’s taken care of.”
Seth grinned. “I have to say, you’re smarter than I gave you credit for. Had you spoken to this Moore guy before we acquired that police dossier and this possibly incriminating DNA evidence…?”
Marlon walked toward the door. “Call me when the results are in.”
Andy Moore stood before Donna Lindberg’s gravestone and smoked a cigarette. Marlon moved next to the man, who didn’t say anything. They shared a long moment of silence. Marlon took out a pair of handcuffs and Andy Moore offered his wrists, all without making eye contact. He led the man to his Toyota and put him inside.
They drove in silence for several minutes.
“You’re not a cop,” Moore said.
“I’m Marlon Monroe, PI.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“Assistant Sheriff Scott’s office.”
Moore continued to stare out of the side window, had not once so much as glanced in Marlon’s direction.
“You discovered Donna Lindberg’s corpse on a dirt track two hundred yards from her family home and farm, which you had reason to be at because of a fire started around the time of her murder.”
“That’s a long time ago,” Moore said.
“I went to the farm the other night. It’s abandoned. Nobody’s been there for years, except you. I bet your SUV tire tracks match the ones I found at the Lindberg farm.”
Moore shifted uncomfortably.
“There’s no way to see the location of the body from the house or the only access road. So, how did you know the body was there?”
“I’m not saying anything.”
“You knew her body was in that exact spot because that’s where you always met her,” Marlon said.
Moore faced him for the first time.
“Your brother, Bobbie, the big shot senator… even back then you were still in his shadows,” Marlon continued. “Bobbie dated Donna until two months before the murder. It’s natural for siblings to be jealous of each other, wanting what the other has.”
Marlon parked outside the Dublin city police station.
“You met Donna in that location for weeks, maybe months,” Marlon said. “You met there precisely because it was out of sight. It was secret. But you didn’t want it to be a secret, not any more. You met Donna there with the intention of eloping. You wanted to run away with her. You loved her.”
Moore lowered his head, cupped his cuffed hands around his face.
“But Donna wouldn’t leave with you,” Marlon continued. “And then she made a mistake. Maybe she let slip that she still loved Bobbie, maybe even that she might tell Bobbie about the two of you. So, you beat this beautiful, blond nineteen-year-old to death. Did unspeakable things to her. And then you set fire to her home — you panicked, maybe someone had seen you drive up there, but it gave you a perfect alibi.”
Marlon got out of the car, opened the passenger side door and dragged the man out. Moore had silver streaks of wetness like snail trails on his cheeks.
“You murdered Donna. You had an innocent man sent to jail, you coward. And you had your big brother come to the rescue and force assistant sheriff Scott to withhold evidence.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Moore said. “I didn’t kill her. You won’t strong-arm me into a confession.”
“I don’t have to. The crime lab confirmed your DNA as a match for the murder of Donna Lindberg. When you bit her, all that saliva…”
Marlon let the sentence trail off.
“It was you,” Moore said. “My pocket ashtray.”
“Excuse me?”
“You had that woman steal my pocket ashtray.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Marlon said. “But did you think she was hot?”
Kimberly sat alone at a restaurant table set for two. She checked her watch, ordered another glass of red wine. Marlon took his seat. He wore a black dress and mascara, but no wig this time.
“Did you have to come like that?” she asked.
“It’s who I am,” he said. The waiter arrived. “Scotch on the rocks,” Marlon said. “Make it a double.”
“You’re late,” she said. “Same as always.”
“I had some good news for a client. Fifteen years in jail, but he’s free now.”
“It’s confusing,” Kimberly said. “You talk the same, act the same, but you’re wearing women’s clothes. It’s going to take a lot to get used to this.”
“But you can get used to it, right?”
Kimberly studied his eyes for a long time. “The worst part wasn’t the lying, or finding out about it after you quit the SFPD, but that you never asked permission to use my mascara. Typical man.”
She smiled.

Whodunnit?: Break Down

Deer Headlights

Luke sat at the desk in his bedroom and wrestled with his unfinished term paper. Outside, the autumn moon was near full and a change in the weather had been threatening for hours. Gusts of wind cut the air, tore leaves from their branches, and knocked against the storm windows. His mind drifted and he fixed his gaze on the windows shuddering in the wind. It had been five days since his mother’s funeral and he still had not gotten the cold smell of death out of his nostrils since he had kissed her goodbye. The forced expression of calm that bloated across her face infuriated him. His father, his sister, and all their relatives had pretended to be calm too. Why did everyone always pretend? The cheap satin lining of her casket and the droning hymns at the funeral mass turned her burial into an impersonal ritual that did not allow him to mourn. At the cemetery, he set a white carnation on the dark mahogany casket and watched as the container filled with his mother descended into the packed earth.

Luke cursed himself under his breath. The television beckoned him, and he pushed away from the desk and plodded downstairs. In the kitchen sink, soapsuds dissolved the microwaved remains of Chinese leftovers clinging to dishes, which would soak until his father returned home from playing darts at a bar and holler at Luke to clean up. He found his groove in the recliner and passed his time alone bouncing between channels to find nothing in particular. He looked up from the television and glanced at his cell phone. He struggled with calling his sister Marianne. He punched her name into his phone and dialed. She had returned to college in Washington D.C., and Luke imagined her having drinks with a desperate graduate student, so she could not feel her cell phone vibrate in her purse amid the drone of happy hour. Luke hung up without leaving a message and went back to channel surfing.

A set of headlights flickered in the distance through the front windows. He knew his father would not be home yet, and since it was rare for cars to pass through their suburbs at this time of night he took notice. Theirs was once a tight-knit neighbourhood with Tupperware parties and benign bicycle gangs. Over the years neighbors had grown suspicious of even the slightest peculiarities. They installed dead bolts, refused solicitors, and monitored garbage collectors. His mother had grown wary of the unfamiliar and once called the police after a neighbour’s flustered visitor accidentally knocked on their door. She thought he was a homeless man looking for a handout and slammed the door in his face.

The headlights came to a stop. Luke got up from the recliner and walked to the window to get a better look. The old sedan parked at the edge of the lawn. An older man emerged from the driver’s seat and went around to the front passenger tire, then to the trunk. Luke watched the man pull out a jack and he figured he had a flat tyre. His curiosity faded and he returned to the recliner to watch television. His mind drifted to thoughts of his mother and how close his parents had grown since the diagnosis, their marriage began to repair itself, and the hope of the cancer’s remission promised a return to romance and much more. But as the treatments failed, cracks in their marriage turned to fissures, and under the pressure of her imminent death, Luke’s father fell into the whiskey bottle.
Twenty minutes passed and he could still see the glow of headlights. He returned to the window and watched as the man knelt beside the car. His conscience took over, and he went to the closet for his coat and boots. The cold wind rushed into the house as he stepped outside. He crossed the lawn and the frozen grass crunched under his soles. The stranger battled with the tyre and did not notice Luke’s approach.
“You need some help?” he said.
He startled the old man, who fought to catch his breath. He was not dressed for the occasion, wearing little more than a trench coat and thin corduroys. His cheeks shone red and Luke thought he could make out the tracks of tears down the old man’s face, either from the cold or the struggle. His white hair had been blown into a wild tangle.
“Well, yeah,” the old man said. “My tyre hit something about a mile back. I’m trying to change the sucker for a spare, but I can’t get these bolts loose. Would you mind?”
“Let me take a look.”
A near gale slammed against them both and Luke felt the cold shoot up his back under his coat. They both braced themselves until the air calmed. The old man held a feeble flashlight and backed away so Luke could crouch to get a better look. The corners of each bolt had been stripped, mutilating once-perfect hexagons. Luke looked up and motioned toward the socket wrench. He took it from the old man’s trembling hand. It bit his bare palms like a piece of ice. He concentrated and slid it over one of the bolts. Then he pushed it against the hub and applied a precise thrust, a strong manoeuvre the old man could not have done himself. The bolt slipped loose.
“Bingo!” the old man said. He watched Luke repeat his work and remove each bolt. After Luke was finished, the man introduced himself. “I’m Joseph.”
“I’m Luke. Nice to meet you.”
They shook their chilled hands. Joseph shivered in the cold and rubbed his arms to keep warm. Luke set the deflated tire on the ground and went to the trunk for the spare. He lifted the stiff upholstery from the bottom of the trunk bed. Wet mold had grown at its corners and the space for the spare tire was vacant.
“Joseph?” Luke said.
“I can’t seem to find your spare.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look here.”
He walked over and Luke showed him the empty trunk. The old man grimaced at himself.
“Shoot. I guess I just figured I had one. Sorry ‘bout that.” He made a feeble glance at the trunk again. “Listen, I would call a tow truck, but my son lives pretty close by. Do you mind if I use your phone?”
“Sure,” Luke said. “Let’s head inside.”
They ducked their heads through the bitter wind and plodded into the house. He picked at the corner of the kitchen countertop while Joseph dialled and then listened to the phone ringing on the other end. They exchanged a pleasant smile to fill the silence. Luke got a good look at him under the kitchen lights. He was unkempt. Small wiry hairs grew around his earlobes and out of his nose. His face was a battlefield of erupted capillaries and dilated blackheads. Luke felt himself aging with each ring of the phone until the answering machine picked up.
“Hello, Wes. It’s your father. I’m in the area, on my way back from Albany when my tyre went flat. I was calling to see if you could help out your old man and get me back on the road. I’m calling from someone’s house. There’s this nice boy who could drive me to your place so we can change the spare. I’ll see you in a few. Bye bye.” He hung up.
“Shoot,” said Joseph. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to impose like that. You mind giving me a lift? He doesn’t live far from here, about fifteen minutes. You have anything to do?”
He thought about his work upstairs.
“If it were still light outside I might even walk,” Joseph said, “because a tow truck would take—”
“It’s not a problem. I’ll drive you.”
“Perfect. That’s great. You can just drop me off, and my son and I will take care of the rest. Then I’ll be out of your hair.”
The two headed outside to Luke’s Subaru. They waited for the engine to warm. Luke thought about his assignment and worried if he’d be able to get an extension. Joseph bounced his legs and rubbed his hands together. They pulled out of the driveway and onto the main road, which glowed with the moon and his headlights as they drove away from the house.
“This is a real big help. You see, I was out seeing a friend of mine about an investment property. Well, it took the whole afternoon and before I knew it—oh, quick, make a left here.” Joseph directed him at the last second and Luke barely made the turn in time. “Before I knew it, the sun set was going down. I would have avoided that pothole if it hadn’t gotten dark out.”
Joseph directed him further along where the road wound alongside a creek. He darted his hand in the direction of the next turn almost too late. Luke let out an irritated sigh.
“Whoops,” Joseph said. “Sorry about that. These turns come out of nowhere. So tell me about yourself. You in school?”
“Yep. Junior in college.”
“What are you studying?”
“Political science.”
“So, you a Democrat or a Republican?”
“Ah, a Liberal. My son, Wes, used to be the same way. Bleeding heart and all. Now he’s got that family of his. I can’t seem to get through to them any more. Well, you’re still young. And you know what Winston Churchill said, don’t you? If you’re not a Democrat when you’re young, you don’t have a heart. And if you’re not a Republican when you’re old, you don’t have a brain.”
“Winston Churchill never said that.”
“He absolutely said that. Why? You don’t agree?”
“That quote isn’t his,” Luke said. “Or at least he was misquoted. It’s not even a sensible idea to begin with and then people attribute it to Churchill to make it seem valid.”
“I’m not saying that. I’m just saying he said it.”
“And I’m saying people should think for themselves.”
“Okay. Never mind then,” Joseph said. He fell quiet, searching for something else to talk about. “You have a girlfriend?”
“I don’t,” Luke said.
“You aren’t dating any of those young honeys at your school?”
“I don’t have much time for that.”
“Gotcha. Busy man,” Joseph said. “I just figured a young man like yourself would be keen on dating around a bit. If I could go back to those days I’d sow my wild oats with the best of them. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that sex is all there is to life. We’re put on this earth to do as much as we can with what we’ve got. I feel as if I have… What did my son used to say? I have actualized my potential. You could say I even have some potential left. Maybe not in the way that you have with your whole life ahead of you, but—well, you see my point.”
“You make a good one,” Luke said.
“Make a good what?” Joseph said.
“A good point. You make a good point.”
“Thanks. And what about your family? Looked like you were the only one home tonight. Where are your folks?”
“Well, my dad is out with friends playing darts.”
“Any mother in the picture?”
“No. She’s dead.” It was the first time he’d said it out loud.
“I’m sorry to hear,” Joseph said.
“That’s OK. So now it’s just my dad and me. She had brain cancer and lasted about four months after the diagnosis.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Joseph moved to put his hand on Luke’s shoulder but then drew back. Luke saw the gesture from the corner of his eye and braced for the old man’s touch that never came.
Growing up, at the dinner table every night, his mother tried to make the most of the time with Luke and his sister. She’d ask them about their day or just come out and teach a lesson to her two children about helping others in need. It had always felt like a platitude, something everyone already knew, that kindness should always come first and come naturally. Luke now felt like his mother was playing a joke on him from beyond the grave.
His vision tunnelled on the road where leaves blew from the left, across the beam of his headlights. It was common in late autumn for deer to be out at night, especially in the wooded area where Joseph was leading them. Luke had once learned deer were not able to respond to a car’s bright lights. He had made a conscious effort to develop the instinct of honking his horn whenever he saw a deer while driving. Most people, if they saw a deer on the road, would flash their brights to scare it away, but this paralyzed the animals. The intense light would wash over a deer, disorient it, and freeze it to the road. It was when a deer could hear a loud noise as a car approached that it would run off. Luke turned cruised around the next bend and passed a horse farm. In the darkness, Luke saw a pair of large glowing eyes. He pulled his foot off the accelerator and slammed his palm against the center of the horn. Joseph jumped and the horse reared up on the other side of a fence.
“Jesus!” Joseph yelled.
“I thought it was a deer,” he said.
“No worries,” said Joseph. “Simple mistake. Besides, we wouldn’t want to hit a deer out here anyway. I can’t afford a second unscheduled stop tonight. Neither can you, I’m sure. Anyway, we’re almost there. You’re gonna make the next right you come to. About a mile ahead.”
A calm filled the car, and he wanted to ask Joseph if he’d noticed anything strange about the evening’s weather. Maybe he could ask him if the snow ever come? He had a few minutes until he would drop off Joseph. Then the father and his son would hit the road together back to the idle car, catching up on each other’s lives and having a good laugh about the flat tire as he followed behind. Luke inhaled to say something.
“Oh, here’s the turn,” Joseph interrupted him. “You’ll want to bear to the left when the driveway splits,” Joseph said.
Luke put on the indicator, slowed down and turned the car onto smooth asphalt. Tall, well-trimmed hedges rose out of a meticulous lawn and flanked the sides of the driveway leading to a stately home with a three-car garage, a large Black SUV, a basketball hoop, and what looked like at least five bedrooms inside. He was surprised to not see a lavish fountain out front.
“You can park here and I’ll make sure he’s home.”
Joseph got out of the car and Luke watched him trudge fifty feet to the front door, through the gusting wind. Then he looked to a large bay window where the glow of a television flickered through the unlit house. He kept the engine running to stay warm. Soon he’d be relieved of his Samaritan duties and return to alternating stares between the television and the stairs leading to his homework while the dishes continued to soak in the sink.
Luke watched Joseph wrapped against the door once, waited, and then knocked again. A light turned on inside the house and Luke saw a family of four settled into their couch. They paused from watching television together and a lanky man got up from the couch, moved from the bay window’s frame, and then appeared inside the front door. He greeted Joseph with an expression of confused shock. Luke realized this must be Joseph’s son Wes. The father delivered a meek greeting to his son who grew large and cross. Joseph said a few more words and then motioned over his shoulder toward the Subaru. Luke shrank low in the seat to evade Wes’ gaze. He shut off the engine to hear the escalating conversation. With the windows closed, he could make out tones of voice, Joseph’s soft and pleading, the son’s harsh and accusatory. He rose back up in his seat to see what was happening. Wes barked at Joseph with a strained neck. Inside his children were shielded by their mother and led upstairs. Wes continued to erupt at his father, whose face filled with desperation, pleading to his son with clasped hands. Luke saw Joseph ready to get down on his knees. He could now make out a few bits of the yelling.
“— out of our life!” Wes shouted. “I’ll call the police…”
Joseph bowed his head, raised his hands to his son, and backed away. Wes took one step forward with fury before he backed into the house and slammed the door. Joseph remained at the door for a moment before turning around and walking back to the car. He opened the passenger side door and a stiff wind blew from behind him into the car. He climbed in and settled down next to Luke.
“Everything all right?” Luke asked, knowing it wasn’t.
“My son didn’t get the message on his answering machine is all. He just wasn’t expecting us.”
“You sure?” he asked. “It looked like you two were—”
“Everything’s fine. I’m sorry to make you come out here for nothing…”
They agreed it was getting late and that they should try to make it to the mechanic’s garage. Luke started the car and returned to the road. He made all the turns and found the reverse route without calling on Joseph for directions.
“What happened back there?” Luke asked, hoping for but not expecting an answer.
“My son and I,” Joseph said, “well, we don’t see eye-to-eye on many things.”
Luke swallowed, realizing he wouldn’t get the full story. He kept his eyes on the road until he heard a soft whimper come from Joseph. It startled him. He glanced over and saw Joseph’s hands holding his face. The old man stopped himself and took a deep breath.
“As a parent,” Joseph said, “and you’ll understand someday. Sometimes even a father’s love can’t make things right for his children.”
From a quarter of a mile away, they could see the garage was closed. He drove past to confirm its lights were off.
“I just remembered,” Luke said, “My dad has a spare back home that might work for you. Sorry I didn’t think of it sooner. You can return it later.”
“You sure?”
“No sweat.”
A sign in the window advertised tyres for eighty dollars each. He pointed it out to Joseph. “Now we know how much they’ll bill you for a tyre.”
They arrived back at the house and found his father’s truck still was not yet parked in the driveway. Luke unearthed the spare tyre from the garage and got to work on the spare, replacing the tyre as quickly as he had removed the flat. When he was finished he returned the flat tyre, the jack and the wrench to Joseph’s trunk and closed the mouldy flap. The two men surveyed the temporary repair and saw the large car dwarfed the spare tyre.
Joseph reached out and shook Luke’s hand. He pushed a few folded bills between Luke’s fingers.
“I can’t accept this,” Luke said.
“I insist.” Joseph pressed his hand until Luke took the money and slid it into his pocket without looking. “Well, I’ll be off. Thanks for your help,” Joseph said.
“I’ll be around tomorrow for you to return the spare, or whenever you’re free.”
“I may just leave it against your garage, if that’s all right.”
Luke nodded.
“It was nice to meet you, Luke.”
“Nice to meet you too, Joseph.”
The old man got into his car and started the engine. The car rattled back to life. Joseph waved goodbye from the window and took the car out of park. As he pulled away, snow began to whirl in the air. The flakes melted as they touched the ground. Joseph flashed his indicator and pulled out of the neighbourhood. Luke reached into his pocket and pulled out the money Joseph had given him. He counted four twenty-dollar bills.
He walked back into the house, out of the cold. On the wall in the foyer was a family portrait of him, his mother, his father, and his sister posing in their Sunday best. Luke thought they all looked like startled animals, especially his mother with her clear blue eyes. The week she died, they did not leave her side at the hospice facility. He’d been cruel to his mother since her diagnosis. As if the cancer was her fault, so he could locate his anger within her. Even in those final days, he couldn’t shake that anger. He couldn’t just be with her before she had to let go. His father tried to tell stories and bring up good memories, but he ran out of material too quickly. The last time he was alone with his mother, Luke held her hand and tried to find the words that would keep her alive. He never did. Maybe now he’d ask her to stay and protect him.
In the dark house, Luke went for the liquor cabinet and pulled out a bottle of bourbon. He said a brief prayer his father would stay at a friend’s place for the night and poured himself a small tumbler. As he climbed the stairs to his bedroom, he hoped to numb himself. The tumbler sat on his nightstand and the bourbon’s legs clung to the side of the glass, but he did not drink from it. He lay on his back, awake with thoughts of Joseph cowering before Wes in the cold night. He regretted not having the presence of mind to lower the windows and listen more closely to their altercation. What were they arguing about? He imagined a scenario where he would have jumped out of the car and intervened. In his vision, he stood taller than Wes and held Joseph around the shoulder like an old friend or a brother.
He yelled, “How dare you!”
He lurched up in his bed and hugged his knees. His eyes darted around the room and settled on the window. The wind had subsided and gave way to a steady snowfall that blanketed the noise outside. He threw the covers off, bounded out of bed, and fumbled in his desk drawer for his pocketknife. He opened the blade, tested its point and edge, closed it, and slid it into his pocket. He walked downstairs through the empty house and out through the garage. The snow had turned the driveway milky, and he walked toward his car. He was warmer and more comfortable than before with the same coat, but now he wore flannel pajamas and shearling slippers.

He started the car, steered onto the main road and found each turn until the final bend came into view. He shut off the lights and parked at the top of the smooth asphalt. He found himself at the head of the driveway and saw the looming silhouette of Wes’ mansion. He killed the engine and pocketed the keys.
He stepped out and looked for a guard dog or motion detector to undermine him. He waited to for any sign of life from the house, in the bedrooms, living room or kitchen. All the interior lights were out, and he figured Wes, his wife and children were all asleep. He imagined them in their beds, their eyelids flickering in deep sleep at dreams that would fade by morning.

The fallen snow lit the driveway, and he stepped toward Wes’ SUV. Its waxed finish collected a lattice of snowflakes on the hood. Above him, Luke saw immense floodlights ready to snap on and shine upon him. His right hand was buried in his coat pocket, holding the knife and keeping it from getting cold. A gust of wind blew into him, but he stood tall and let it flow around him. He drew the knife out from his pocket, opened its blade, and crouched down to puncture the first tyre. The steel tip entered the hard rubber easier than he anticipated. He moved on, punctured the next tyre and the next. The thin hiss from each combined in harmony and filled the hushed night air. He figured three was enough, stood up, and made his way back to his car.