Jerry Meredith had been picked up two weeks back with nearly five pounds of medicinal-grade marijuana sealed in a section of PVC pipe. The witness, he later found out—the good Samaritan he was—had thought it seemed suspect, some man diving over from Windsor lugging a section piece of pipe. And the state trooper who had picked Jerry up had told him, “It’s concerned citizens like this that help us catch assholes like you.” There’s something true to that, Blake thinks, sitting on the slightly beat-up Starcraft SeaFarer, listening to the stinking waves of the Detroit River slap against the boat.
The SeaFarer, which he’d bought off Craigslist for just over two grand, was a correction to the problem posed by Jerry Meredith: How do you blend in? A diver swimming the length of the river acting flighty and lugging a section of pipe…yeah, they should’ve known it didn’t make much sense. But Blake, mid-forties and of average build, hair thinning, sitting on a boat at the cusp of dusk with a rod in-hand, cooler of cheap beer sitting on the floor beside him—all of this makes perfect sense. The boat—an integral part of the deception—was key: no heap of junk, but nothing too gaudy either. Had to look like he belonged so no one would think otherwise. Of course, the dead dog hiding under the old tarp behind him would be a giveaway that something wasn’t right, but that’s the risk in all this. And there always has to be one.
So Blake studies the sky, dawn quickly fading to night, stands and surveys the river. Alone, he unwraps the blanket, admires the dog—a mutt, looks like he has some Rottweiler in him—then the stitched-up gash running along its breast, black string glistening from the leaking fluids, its eyes already turning the color of milk. Blake sniffs, loud, then spits out into the river, picks up the dog and tosses it overboard. Once in the water he waits, watches it float back to the surface, and with his fishing net he pushes it west, southeast toward Detroit, and watches as the water carries it gently forward, bobbing amongst the waves toward the other side.
Blake pulls the Corolla into the steep drive, stops halfway up. At the end of it is a small three-sided shack, cords of wood inside tied together with blue string and piled on top of each other, a plastic half gallon milk jug with a slit sewn into it for people to deposit money.
Flanking the shack are single-wides with “For Rent” signs in the windows, the wooden porches melting away from disuse. Beyond the drive, up a small incline of brown grass, another trailer, a double-wide: alongside it an plump woman, her feet dangling in a plastic kiddie pool sitting with what looks to be her two daughters—hair as red as sunrise. A piece of corrugated sheet metal had been bent into a rough-looking circle, jammed into the ground nearby. A fire jumps up from within it, licks the sides as another one of the girls awkwardly dumps kindling into it. Stumps of birch and young oak are scattered about, the remnants of what once was a forest that came out to greet them, now torn down to sell to weekend warriors passing by in need of cheap campfire wood.
Blake gets out of the car, stretches his aching frame, checks out the road behind him—trees and lake beyond it—and clears his throat. It’s brisk, windy. Dreadful.
As he walks up the drive, he spots one of the girls, probably twelve, collect a feral black and white cat, cradling it in her arms so its legs dangle down at her waist. It doesn’t struggle, just stays still, waiting for it to all be over. It reminds Blake of all the cats he shot with his air rifle when he was a kid. Didn’t think much of it back then, but it sickens him now. Shame, he thinks. They at least deserved a sporting chance.
“The jug’s for the money,” the girl yells out as she approaches. “It’s two for five.”
Blake smiles. “Is your mom home?”
The girl studies him, the cat starting to squirm. She hoists it up onto her shoulders and it reluctantly obeys, tail flicking back and forth sharply. “You don’t want wood?”
“Just need to speak to your mom. Is that her back there at the pool?”
The girl—too young to know better—looks back at the plump woman who now has a hand visored on her brow, watching this stranger converse with her daughter. “Maybe,” she says.
Tired of playing, Blake breaks past the girl and hikes up the drive. The woman, unable to move at any sort of quick pace, shoos her children away—though they do little more than scatter nearby, watching and waiting. Seeing what reason this man has for being here.
“You Dolly?” Blake yells up at her.
The woman shifts. “Yeah. Who’re you?”
“You don’t know me.”
“Is that supposed to bring me comfort?”
“No,” Blake says. “Not in the slightest.” Pause. “I’m looking for Jordi. Was told I could find him here.”
The woman waits, licks her chapped lips. “What’s all this about?” Then, without waiting: “Jordi’s a good boy.”
Blake looks behind him at the children peering out from their hiding places. Wild children of the forest, they look. “Is it okay to talk business out here?”
“Well, Jordi owes some money to some folks. I work for those folks, so he’s supposed to come with me, help me out.” Pause. “Pay off this debt of his.”
The woman licks her lips again, scratches her shoulder peppered with what looks like spider bites. Blake watches her, her swollen ankles cooling in the pool.
“Jordi!” Dolly calls still staring at the man.
A quick ruckus inside, then a boy appears, about twenty: skinny, pimpled and red-faced like his ma. Shirtless, he has a cross tattooed on his chest, no distinction between abdominals and ribs poking through paper flesh.
“What?” Jordi asks then, seeing Blake, his eyes go wide. “Shit.”
“Julian said you’d work for me today. You get my meaning?”
Jordi exchanges a look with his ma, then his sisters spread about. “Yeah, alright.”
“Good. Get your shirt and let’s go.”
Jordi sighs, disappears back in the trailer and returns a minute later with a sweatshirt and jacket, Detroit Tigers hat in his hands. “Let’s do it,” he says and kisses his ma on the cheek.
“You take care of him,” she calls out as they walk down the drive toward the Corolla. “He’s my only boy!”
They’re downriver in less than an hour, navigating an upper-middle class neighborhood along the banks of Lake Erie where dirty-wet sand meets a wall of hardwoods and evergreens, stopping finally at a two-story painted robin’s egg blue with a perfectly manicured lawn.
“This it?” Jordi asks.
“Shit. Must be nice.”
Blake ignores him, situates the car over under a great oak across the street shaded from the dying afternoon sun and shuts it off. “Now we wait.”
“When’d you cross over?” Jordi asks, not letting a single breath between them rest.
“Earlier today. Had a couple of stops to make.”
“Where’d you get the car?” Blake doesn’t answer, just stares at the road. Jordi starts rapping his fingers on his legs, fidgeting. “You hear all that talk about the new bridge? You think that’s going to happen?”
Blake smiles, amused at his attempt to be friendly. Oblivious, it seems, to the goings-on around him. “Yeah, I heard. And no idea. Your government is being a bit stupid about it, you want my opinion.”
“Last I checked we were willing to front all the money to get the thing made, you still said no.”
“Well, I don’t know much about it, but there’s probably a reason.”
“Why else, then?”
“Greed? So they can control the gateway into the States? Who knows. Take your pick. Anyway, I’m not really for the idea.”
“Another bridge means more security, especially right when it opens. More traffic going through, more security concerns. All that. Could be a problem for us.”
“Oh,” Jordi says, back to his fidgeting, legs this time. Then: “So what’s all this about?”
Blake pulls out a pack of Parliaments, lights one up. Inhales, exhales slow. He offers the pack to Jordi who grabs one eagerly. “You hear what happened to Jerry?”
“Got picked up, yeah.”
“Well, he was being stupid. We all were. Julian…” Blake thinks, takes another drag. “He’s got some great ideas, but some need some work, you know? That whole pipe shit was a bad idea. In hindsight, anyway. So we’ve corrected it, me and Julian.”
Jordi blows out a small puff of smoke and points his bone-thin fingers at the robin-egg blue house. “What, they in on it or something?”
“Just sit still, alright?”
“Yeah,” Jordi mumbles. “Whatever you say.”
Blake reclines his chair, looks out between the houses at the lake, the setting sun flaring up the sky in oranges and reds. “We got time to kill,” he says. “So you got something to say, shoot.”
Jordi sniffs, bites his fingernails. “Still don’t see why you just don’t drive the shit over the bridge. They never check. One time my boy Cole and I were carrying some smack over from Windsor, decent amount, never even knew what was what.” He smiles, takes a drag. “Fuckin played em, you know? Was real easy.”
“You got lucky. And anyway, the amount of shit we’re trying to move…it’d get noticed. So we have to be smart. Anyway, border’s shut up tight like some puckered asshole, especially after Jerry’s stunt.”
“I know some guys,” Jordi starts, “and they know some truckers who drive over Ambassador like three times a week, and they told us for a price we could—”
“Just stop,” Blake says. “Been doing this a lot longer than you. Just do what I ask and your debt’s wiped. Alright?”
“Yeah, alright.” Pause. “Just, you know, wanna know if I’m going to get my hands dirty tonight is all.”
Blake takes a drag. “Count on it,” he says.
The dark had set upon them fast. Not a car had driven by since they had pulled up, the only fear Blake had, some cop or concerned citizen worried about them hanging about, but it was quiet. On the radio: Tigers getting pummeled by the White Sox. Jordi had nearly smoked the entire pack of cigarettes, only starting to complain about being hungry, about needing to eat so he won’t feel light-headed. And then, there it is: The yellow porch light of the house flashes on, off.
“It’s time,” Blake says.
“What? What’d I miss?”
“Just come on.”
Blake turns off the radio and the two exit the car slow, quiet, circle back around to the trunk where Blake removes a shovel, a hunting knife.
“What’s that for?” Jordi asks and Blake can hear the worry on his voice.
“Not for you.”
They cross the lawn single-file and follow it alongside the house, dark grass damp under their feet, until they get to the back yard: smooth patio stones dug into the ground, sets of ornate lawn furniture and a children’s manufactured play-structure, all of it butting right up against Erie, the dark waves chopping and biting in front of them.
Blake looks back at the house, a sun porch, sees a silhouette looking back. He raises a hand, waves. The figure does the same then returns into the house.
Jordi, watching, crinkles his face. “Is this some spy shit? Who is that?”
“No one you need to know. You just need to know he’s a friend doing us a solid.”
“And what’s this solid he’s doing?”
“Just head out toward the back there, near that vegetable garden.”
Once there, Blake stops, points: Rows of dried up stems and chocolate-colored soot are all that’s left save for a single white cross hammered into the earth. Jordi looks, sniffs, and Blake, sure he doesn’t understand, hands him the shovel.
“Huh?” Jordi asks.
“The ground there, under the cross. And don’t ask any more questions.”
Jordi takes the shovel and jams it near the cross. He finds the soil, cold and spoiled, hard to break through at first, but once he does it only takes him a few shovels full to hit something. “This it?”
Blake, watching a speedboat on the water do circles, lost in the laughter from aboard as it pierces the dark quiet of night, comes to. “Yeah, pull that on up there.”
Jordi digs around the object and clears some of the earth away until he can see a dirty-white sheet wrapping something the size of a child. He opens it and is knocked back by the sight and stench: the rotting carcass of a Rottweiler-type mutt, eyes clouded over, body bloated with belch.
“Goddamn,” Jordi says standing up out of the way of the thing as if it might come alive. “What is this?”
“Profit.” Blake tosses the knife over, lands sheath-first into the ground. “Now cut. What we want’s inside. Get it?”
It takes a minute for Jordi to put it together and when he does he doesn’t say a thing, just wipes his nose with his forearm, plucks the knife from the ground and kneels next to the dog. He runs a hand along its flank and finds the sutures along the belly, starts cutting them away and has to turn his head as black sludge spills out. Once open he looks up at the sky and reaches his hand in the cavity, feels plastic and yanks it out. In his hand: a brick of marijuana.
“Holy shit!” Jordi yells. “What, this a pound?”
“Don’t shout, alright?”
“So what, you just kill the dogs and this guy buries em? How do they get here?”
“You don’t need to know, alright? What you need to know is there’s more in there you need to remove and I’d like to be out of here in ten minutes or less.”
“This is so smart, man. You and Julian are serious players. And really, I know I fucked up, but you ever need anything, want to give me another chance, I’m so in. So in.”
“Good to know,” Blake says pointing back to the dog. “Now back at it.”
He steps back, hands in his pockets, and looks back out over the water. He can no longer see the speedboat, can no longer hear the laughing, and wonders where they’ve gone. He then studies Jordi rooting around inside the dog excitedly and humming a song he can’t quite make out, and for a moment he thinks about this kid and all those rough sorts that’ll be pinched before they’re twenty-five—making life hard on their families, on those that know them—but he feels no pity for them because they chose this, they chose their lot and, even at the worst, they know what they’re getting into. But the dogs he suddenly pains for, rounded up and shot dead, no explanation given as to their sacrifice. And for that, he thinks, they deserve all the pity in the world.
ROBERT JAMES RUSSELL is the author of the novel Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is the co-founder and Managing Editor of the literary journal Midwestern Gothic and the founder of the online literary journal CHEAP POP. Find him online at robertjamesrussell.com and @robhollywood.