“You look beat,” says Bruce. He’s fifteen years older than me and tends to seesaw between condescending passes and out-right grab-assing. When he says I look beat, what he means is I shouldn’t have walked here. He’d prefer that I call and, like a schoolgirl or imprisoned maiden, ask for a ride so he can be all gallant and pick me up in his Isuzu Trooper. How many of those are even around anymore? That way, giving me a ride, I’d owe him a favor. He’d try to get his dick licked in the bargain. I shit you not. As it stands, I’m here in the dead of night on business and don’t give a half a damn if my eyes are puffy and my makeup’s off and my hair could use doing.
“Pap wants to see you,” I tell him.
“Pappy could have called.”
“Asked me to fetch you,” I tell him.
Bruce is naked and sweating freely in his sheets. He thinks he’s an eco-crusader for not running AC in South Florida. I think he’s a nitwit. The lights are on full and his joint is hanging out lackadaisically like a dead lizard. One of those invasive geckos in a brown phase. The man is tan. I mean from toes to crack to earlobes. He swipes a big paw, trying to rake me into bed with him, but I’m a step too quick even if I’m still groggy.
“Why you gotta doddle?” I ask.
“What’s Pappy want?”
You gotta be pretty stupid to ask Pap why he wants anything. Serves you better just to shut up and do. Bruce knows this and I don’t feel like indulging him with explanations. Truth is, I don’t know what Pap’s got his mind on. Doesn’t much matter at the moment. From my purse, I take out a matchbook that says Teasers on the front in script and strike a match and flick it on the sheets. Some people call me a pyromaniac but I’ve always felt pretty calm when I get going and shit starts burning. Bruce cusses me pretty good but I keep throwing the little yellow flames his way. After the sixth, he finally gets his ass off the mattress and pulls only slightly stained tighty whiteys over his quite-low hanging fruits. He says we’ll drive over in his Isuzu. I tell him we sure as hell won’t. It’s six blocks to Pap’s and I got no desire to give Bruce the chance to make a ten-mile detour so he can stick a hand in my undies. Last time he tried that, I broke his left index finger. He still managed to get a palm on my tit. And give it a hell of a squeeze. He’s good at ignoring pain. He’s tougher than I’d like to admit.
Walking beside Bruce is like walking beside a cranky horse: he’ll more or less go along but if I get careless, he’ll kick me square in the chest and run whinnying off into the night—or worse, stick around to stomp on me. So I’m staying attuned to his huffs, pauses, and changes of step.
Call me Retha for what it’s worth. Like a mix between the singers Aretha Franklin and Reba McEntire. My parents liked to think they were being soulful and a little bit country when they named me. That’s what I tell people, leastways. Though it’s not the worst name for a mutt like me: black, white, Creole, maybe a little Mexican, a hundred percent Americana chica anyhow. I like to say I’m from here, Lake Worth, because no one is. Sets me apart. In truth, I was raised outside Tucson. I remember spending a lot of hours in a mesh pen with a desert-dirt floor, tending to a flock of Andalusian hens. In retrospect, I think they were tending me while Moms and Pops got work done. She was a sex caller. Had one of those breathy voices born of 10,000 cigarettes. He had a truck with our phone number on the side and the words I DO ANYTHING spelled out in big block letters. When I was thirteen, someone spray painted FOR WEED after ANYTHING. I’m not sure who did it or if they knew much about Dad’s habits, but the message was pretty much spot on and he never bothered changing it.
We turn off Lucerne Street and head down South Lake Drive before reaching the Intracoastal. Pap’s got a bungalow on South 5th that opens onto the water, a three-story affair decked out in stucco and terracotta roof tiles. Beats the shit out of the shack I sleep at on North 4th and L Street. This whole hellish town is numbered and lettered like a damn chessboard. Not real creative thinkers, the founders of Lake Worth.
According to my phone, it’s three-seventeen in the morning when we amble up the walk and let ourselves into Pap’s. Pap always makes us turn off our phones when we come in. He’s paranoid about being recorded. He checks at random. If you got a phone still on, he breaks a finger. It’s a simple equation and because he enforces it universally and consistently, excepting only himself and the women he screws, we have come to accept and even expect it. Similar to how you’d expect to be mauled if you pulled out the whisker of a catamount. Once you get one finger broken, you tend not to foul up again. For me it was a left pinkie that now, when I start to close my fist, flops down like a dead worm. It is otherwise functional, however, and cosmetically no different than before.
The only lights on in the house are the recessed bulbs in the kitchen, which is an expansive, tiled space with bright orange granite counters and pink-painted walls. Pap is at the island in the center of the room, cutting up salumi, perspiring freely, and bringing the weight of his upper body down through the knife with each slice. He weighs a solid two-twenty, stands just over six feet, and all of it’s muscle. His real name is Amado Crespo. For the life of me, I can’t tell if his origins are Italian or Spanish. His hair is curly and cut uniformly short. With a razor, it has been shaved in a hard, manicured line at his temples, above his ears, and at the back of his neck, giving the appearance of a trim black beanie. I suspect that he spends so much time and money on his hair because the rest of his face is on the broad, uglyish side and would never be considered beautiful without radical cosmetic surgery. I have seen brochures for collagen injections, Rhinoplasty, and Botox strewn around his house. But I have also seen brochures for breast implants, and I don’t suspect Pap of wanting a gender change. No, his girl du jour Chelsea is the one who is, I believe, interested in self-improvement. Or at least in spending Pap’s money and having something to chitchat about with her girlfriends. The social culture surrounding plastic surgery terrifies me.
“Stale,” says Pap. “Chelsea let it get stale and now it’s particle-board meat. Just try eating it. You’ll lose a tooth. I’m breaking it up small. Then I’m going to sauté it in butter for an hour and add in tomatoes and make a Bolognese.”
“I’ll chop it if you want,” says Bruce.
“And slip and cut your hand and bleed all over my kitchen? I don’t think so. No. No, thank you.” Pap puts down the knife, rinses his hands in the sink, towels off, and walks over to us. He says, “Phones.”
We lay our phones on the counter. Mine is blank and stays that way. Bruce’s lights up with the picture of a mostly nude stripper. Bruce looks apologetically at Pap then glances at me as if to say, Why didn’t you remind me? As if I hadn’t done enough turning my phone off in front of him at the door. Poor Bruce is a little hard-up on the learning front. To date, Pap has broken his left pinkie and left ring finger. Now Bruce holds out his right hand. He’s a righty and I’m sure will hate losing any dexterity with one of the digits responsible for gun-holding, check-signing, and cock-spanking, but I guess his left is too banged up to take another loss. Pap looks thoughtfully at the photo of the girl. Her face is obscured by a shock of blonde hair. She’s got her ass up in the air. Her buttocks are a pale blur, and she has one finger under her G-string band, lifting it an inch.
Bruce’s eyes are as wide as a frightened Boston terrier’s.
Pap squeezes a fist around Bruce’s right pinkie and says, “Nice looking chickadee. Nice cheeks. You’ll have to introduce me.”
As Pap snaps back Bruce’s pinkie, it occurs to me that if the man is gonna be so scaredy about security then he should also inspect our phones for bugs and our persons for wires. He has never done this, however, probably because his paranoia is married with his penchant for self-important superiority. He doesn’t believe we’re intelligent or resourceful enough to sneak anything by him in any sophisticated manner, and in his mind he knows we’re too frightened to go the police or any other agency that might help us with the difficult work. He is smart enough not to let me bring a purse inside. I argued this briefly, saying I had certain necessities in that purse (lighters, mace, toiletries, etc.). Once a month, I made a point of telling him I needed to use the restroom and “borrow” a tampon from Chelsea. I did this mostly to irritate Pap. He finally got pissy about it and, on what he said was Chelsea’s advice, bought me a Diva Cup. Now I hold my tongue.
Bruce scrunches his face and flexes the muscles around his eyes and in his neck as he works against the pain. He makes a muted, animalistic sound nonetheless that’s reminiscent of a raccoon yowling. Pap lets go, and Bruce’s pinkie is angled obtusely, grotesquely away from his other fingers. Then it falls obliquely back in line, the color bright against his tan. Any sane person would wrap his hand in ice quick as can be, but Pap won’t allow it. The swelling is part of the punishment, an instance in which Pap’s behavior veers away from the judicious and lands on sadism. I think that’s where his heart is, really. I think that if he didn’t love his girls and Champagne and money and golf carts and club memberships so much, he’d wallow very happily in a world of hands-on pugilism, rape, and thieving. As it is, he dabbles in these areas mostly at arm’s length, allowing himself only an occasional moment of gratification, as he has here, grinning broadly, staring down at the finger that has already doubled in circumference.
For half a minute we are all quiet, studying Bruce’s broken digit. The silence is awkward because Bruce, if he ever decided he’d had enough abuse, or more realistically if he ever became so frightened and angry that he lashed out, could be a quite formidable threat to Pap. The two men are similar in height and build with Bruce being an inch taller and some ten pounds heavier. Unquestionably, he is less intelligent than Pap. Probably, he is not as quick in the fast twitch muscle department. Perhaps he does not know as much about fighting in close quarters. Nevertheless, if I were Pap, the prospect of backlash would give me pause. Does Pap gain confidence from my presence? Does he think that I would assist him because he employs me? Honestly, I’m not sure if I would or wouldn’t. I sympathize with Bruce and usually fancy that I am in this line of work more because I’m good at it and enjoy it and not because I need the money. The money, however, is quite a perk and if the moment ever comes, the thought of future paychecks might just sway me.
Finally, Pap shakes his head, looks sourly at Bruce and says, “Pendejo. Use that enormous head of yours. You’re no good to me without your hands.”
Bruce nods back and forth in a rhythmic manner of agreement that translates down through his whole body. It is a motion employed more to handle the sensations in his finger than to affirm his understanding.
Pap goes to the refrigerator and comes back with a Negra Modelo. He does not offer one to me or to Bruce and we do not expect him to. I have often considered that if I wanted to kill Pap, one of the best methods would be to spike his cervezas with some poison or other. How I would pop the caps to access the liquid, I’m not exactly sure. I suspect that Pap is careful enough that if the fizz and hiss are not perfectly consistent upon removing the cap then he would drain out the contents. I am not sure of this. It is conceivable that carefully prying off the cap, dropping in a tear of cyanide, and replacing the cap just so would do the trick.
After taking a swig, Pap says, “Tell me what you know about Prince Rupert.”
He doesn’t mean the city in Canada. He means the bull over in the western half of Palm Beach County. It’s a great big Chianina bull. It is rumored to weigh two tons, and on Monday that rumor will be put to the test by the good people at Hanson Dairy and the Guiness Book of World Records.
“He’s a damn big animal,” I say.
“He’s as white as my hand is red,” says Bruce. This is the kind of nonsensical thing that occasionally spouts from his lips when he’s trying to show how thoughtful he is—in this case to show how much of a team player he can be even as he suffers. I sympathize but can’t help rolling my eyes.
“He is extremely white,” says Pap.
“He’s going to break that record.” I feel I can say this with a deal of confidence. I have seen the bull. I have seen his size. He’s bigger than a damn Cadillac. Must be heavier, too. A truly stupendous animal.
Pap spreads his hands, palms up. “Yes, if he is weighed, he will get the record. But you see, I cannot have him get the record.”
“We could kill him,” Bruce says.
“They would still weigh him. They would still honor him—or it’s very likely they would. And Hanson must have twenty pounds of that bull’s semen already in a bank. So it will not help me to have the bull dead. Let me add that it would be a nightmare to steal him. Where would we put him? How would we get him? Would we pasture or slaughter him? It’s difficult logistically. No, I want him to be weighed. I want him to be tested, and I want him to be disgraced.”
Together, Jud and Jud Hanson Jr. (JJ) operate the largest cattle operation in Palm Beach County, which in itself doesn’t mean much. They rear cattle, sell cattle, and show cattle—and the selling and showing means moving livestock across state and sometimes international lines. This is the aspect of their business that concerns Pap and therefore me. Because Pap’s been looking for a way to move merchandise ever since SunKoro, the outboard motor and dirt bike company we formerly employed, went up in literal flames two months ago. En fuego. A giant industrial complex spouting soot and gorgeous orange flickers and flashes and fireballs in the dead of night. Hard to put the thing out. Damn near impossible, really. And such a waste. The good people at SunKoro just couldn’t understand how replaceable they were—they wanted to increase their per transaction fee, which is not a negotiation you try with Pap. Pap negotiates you.
I won’t say how that fire started. But I’ll say this: no one was on the property when the first delicate flames lapped the air. I’ve always done my best to keep clear of murder charges. That’s what Pap’s got Bruce for—too bad for the SunKoro people. Anyway, the bitch of it is that those pasty patsies (of the palest American skin, for what it’s worth—trailer trash frat boys using a fake Japanese company name, Lord knows why, maybe to sound like more legitimate competitors with Yamaha)—have actually proved pretty tough to replace.
Pap has a very specific way he likes to think about his “product acquisition and relocation procedures” (I am not one-hundred percent on what comprises Pap’s merch—his business is compartmentalized and I do not deal with the actual product, though my guess is that he dabbles in everything from pot to oxy to tiger pelts. There’s not a hell of a lot I’d put past Pap, though I’ve told him I won’t be any part of human trafficking and would torch him in his sleep if he crosses that particular line): take an established business, offer the owners the right incentive, send several fake shipments unbeknownst to the operators, slowly and randomly mix in the real stuff, and increase volume when everything runs smooth. When it works, it’s kinda neat: we take care of the logistical hassles: loading the product, making the product invisible, and offloading the product. The distributors we work with never have to touch it, never have to see it, never have to change established routines or alter business in any particular way. They just have to move the product. Of course, if they get caught, they assume all risk because they don’t really know us. They never meet Pap. The man they think runs the Company is actually an accountant, quite respectable, who has no direct ties to us on paper. We talk to these people in terms of wanting partnerships, of course, but what we’re really bargaining for are servants. “Slaves,” Bruce calls them. But if they were slaves, Pap wouldn’t pay them so well.
Anyhow, after that fire, we needed a new distributor. To Pap’s credit, he keeps up supplies as far as six weeks out so that we can absorb these types of minor crises. Tonight was the first I learned that he’s interested in Prince Rupert, though it makes sense because we’re well past that six-week buffer. But I’ll get to the bull in a minute. The point is, we’ve been after the Hansons since June. Back then, it was my job to make the pitch, which meant finding the right incentive. So I watched their place for two solid weeks, learning the following:
Jud Hanson is sixty-four. He is a third-generation rancher, big as a schoolbus and near as yellow. Jaundiced, surely. He smokes incessantly. Drinks Clamatos spiked with vodka, chases them with beer, and finishes off a six-pack regularly by eight o’clock.
JJ is six-foot and one-eighty give or take ten pounds, making him half the size of his father to my eyes. He’s forty-five. I’ve never seen him with a cigarette. I’ve never seen him with a beer, whiskey, or even a Xanax. He runs the numbers side of the business.
Neither man is married, neither visits hookers, and neither keeps a regular girlfriend. JJ spends weekend nights in West Palm Beach, cruising the strip in his silver El Dorado and never stopping before finally returning to ranchland.
I dug up their financials, looked at the cost of their properties, the cost of their livestock, and read their last ten tax returns. I read every newspaper, magazine, and Internet tidbit about them that I could. I Facebook stalked Jud’s ex-wife then bumped into her at a tanning salon on the North Federal Highway in Boca Raton (who needs a tanning salon in Florida? It amazes me) and learned that their marriage fell apart after she found out Jud had allocated a quarter million dollars to a second family in Tampa (names of Cristiana la Paz and Sal la Paz—Sal appears to be another junior Hanson; the man has a knack for producing male offspring).
So I went to Tampa and watched Cristiana for two days and learned she prefers neon tangerine to just about any other clothing color choice and spends a good six hours a day shopping for shoes, clutches, swimsuits, and lingerie. Her breasts are too perky for her age or physics generally. She also packs a 9mm Beretta for which she has a conceal carry permit and which she keeps in working order at Bullet Zone, a gun dealer and shooting range outside the city limits. This appears to be the way the woman builds up her appetite for leafy green lunches. I am not sure why she carries the gun, but I find the fact, in conjunction with the payment from Jud, quite curious. Also, son Sal is borderline psychotic. He’s twenty-three. I tailed him from a gym to a basketball court to a bar. He broke two noses in one day: throwing elbows after a rebound and sucker-punching a guy who accidentally bumped him on the way to a restroom.
Unfortunately, none of that shed much light directly on the Hansons, and I returned to Palm Beach County somewhat at a loss. For all of Jud’s personal missteps, his business was (and is) making money. He could, it appeared, absorb both a divorce and a $250,000 payout without soiling his panties or even laying off the help. So last week, I went back to following JJ around on his nightly excursions to West Palm. He was cruising Clematis Street and pausing outside the Goth club Respectable Street when I gently tapped the fender of his Cadillac with my Miata, crumpling the poor Miata.
I stopped immediately, got out, and hurried up to the driver’s side of the El Dorado under the pretense of making sure JJ was alright. He was hurriedly zipping up his pants. A smatter of blood stained his hands and shirt. This was the little something I needed when I made our pitch: the knowledge that JJ was a voyeur, a pervert, a social outcast. I rapped the glass of his window with my fist.
“You okay?” I asked. “I’m so sorry.” I tried to put real feeling into the words. “Totally my fault.”
To his credit, JJ tried to pay for the damage to my Miata after craning his neck to see my smashed up front bumper. That’s before he understood who I was, when he still thought a few dollars could get him out of the embarrassment of being caught cock-fisted and bleeding on his upholstery. I insisted we go by the book and take down each other’s insurance and snap photographs. He opened his glove compartment, retrieved a checkbook and a pen, and started writing. “Ten thousand,” he said, waving the check at me between his fore and middle fingers as if it were a cigarette. I took it. It was a personal check, which showed at least some good judgment. He had scribbled it out in a shaky hand with the words Pay to cash. I would have preferred it if he’d left it blank, allowing me to insert any word in the world. If I were to put down say the name of a known drug dealer or child pornographer, I could make life rather sticky for mister Jud Junior. No matter. I folded it, put it in my wallet in my purse, and said, “Aren’t you kind? And here I thought I was in the wrong. Let me park and I’ll buy you a drink.”
“I don’t drink,” he told me.
“A soda, then? Or a tonic water? Or a juice? I’ll buy you whatever it is you do drink.”
He looked awkwardly at me and then at his shirt and pants, the stains of blood dark against the off-white fabrics.
“We can go to my place,” I said. “Or yours. We don’t have to do the club.”
In my mind, given enough options, JJ would have to say yes. He had been disturbed, if somewhat violently, in the midst of pleasuring himself, and I felt that by leaning forward and displaying what modest cleavage I could, surely the prehistoric parts of his brain would get the better of him. I admit that I was tempted to forgo this line of flirtation, to tell him bluntly what an ass he was, to ask him if he’d ever heard of Pap. Pap, I knew, would get a kick out of all of this. But what would I gain by showing my hand? Wouldn’t I gain more with the promise of showing my breasts, my buttocks, with the promise of touching his ears with my lips? Wouldn’t it be interesting in at least an anthropological way to see the path this man would pursue? To get a sense of his desires and fetishes and animal perversities? Was he a magnum or a pencil pusher? A lover or a sadist? You will understand that I have, for the last ten years, been supremely self-confident when acting within the role of my profession. I am an arsonist. A con artist. A criminal. A woman. I am five-feet-nine and one-quarter inches tall in my bare feet, heels firmly on the floor. I weigh an average of 136 pounds when I awake, according to a digital, biometric scale. My percent body fat rounds up to five. During the course of the day, I gain an average of three pounds in water weight that shows in my paunch like a burgeoning beer belly. I cannot be scared or sloppy or start second-guessing myself when I am handling a client or servant. I have to play whatever part I choose with my whole heart, mind, and body down to the tremble of my lower lip, the thrust of my hips, and the whisper of my breath. By turns I am a predator, a floozy, an intellectual, a virgin, a bitch, a lesbian. I carry out these roles as required to whatever extent necessary. I use protection usually. I carry mace always. I have once employed the high-prong setting of an emerald cut ruby ring to slice a man’s thigh nearly to the femoral artery. He proceeded to strangle me until I lost consciousness, and I am still not sure entirely why didn’t kill me. Certainly from the standpoint of pain and terror, that incident ranks as the closest I have come to my own death. But all of this is only to say that I have gauged the risks of my profession through personal experience. I am not a simpleton. I am not a naïf. I am not overconfident. And I am not to be pitied.
My right headlight was out and I didn’t feel like risking getting pulled over on the highways so I parked in a garage on Evernia Street then joined JJ in the Cadillac. He was dabbing at his shirt with a wet napkin. Without looking at me, he said, “Where do you live?”
“South,” I told him. “A guy’s there. Maybe. Maybe not be the best place to go.”
“I’m out in the country,” he said, his words coming out in defeat. Who was this man? A virgin? An ineffectual depressive? I realized how very little I understood him. I let him sit with only his own answer for a minute while I buckled and put my hands on the hem of my skirt. Finally, bashfully, he lifted his eyes. “Isn’t too far. Hour drive is all.”
A wonderful lie! It was an hour-and-twenty minutes doing eighty on the highways in the light of day. At night? A good hour-forty. Unless he had a different place in mind.
“Good thing for you I’m a country girl,” I said. “Take me the hell out of this city, mister. West Palm ain’t good for nothing but dinging up my car.”
– Candice Cousins