We have the honor of hosting Rob Brunet with Terry Shames this Monday, November 10th. His novel Filthy Rich is getting great buzz as one of the best debuts of the year, combining crime and comedy brilliantly. In this story, originally a part of the anthology Down, Out, & Dead, serves as a prequel to Filthy Rich.
By Rob Brunet
Perko Ratwick needed a change in plans like he needed hemorrhoids. He rocked his Harley onto its kickstand and walked to the water’s edge where a man stood fishing.
“Biting today?” he asked.
The man grunted and looked at the white bucket beside him. Perko peeked in and saw what had to be half a dozen scaly creatures, gills flapping on the top ones.
“These good eating?” Making conversation when he’d much rather knee-cap the fisherman. Four months of planning, a twenty-thousand-dollar down payment so this bugger could set up a suburban grow op, and now he calls to say the deal’s off? No explanation?
“Free food.” The man finished reeling in his line, shook a clump of weeds from its green and yellow lure, and cast again.
Perko didn’t get it. Nghiem had to be worth a couple million, maybe more. He’d arrived from Vietnam a decade ago and was running at least six grow houses in the suburbs north of Toronto, one of which was supposed to supply Perko. Surely he could afford dinner. “We coulda met in a restaurant,” said the biker. “I’d a picked up the tab.”
Nghiem said, “Sense of obligation. No need.”
“So what’s the deal? Your message said something changed.”
“I said no deal. Go find new grower.”
Perko said, “I don’t understand. You’re saying—”
“What so hard? NO GROW FOR YOU.”
Perko watched as he tugged and reeled, pulling the lure through the shallows. Nghiem’s plain white van sat forty feet away, backed in off the road. With cars passing every minute or so, there was no way to drag him over without being seen. Besides, chances were the guy had a couple goons inside the van in case their boss needed help delivering bad news.
“I’ve already lined up the sale,” Perko said.
Nghiem’s rod bent suddenly. He let a little line run out then started reeling again, still smooth and slow. “Cops busted two houses. One guy third time. He’s not coming out soon.”
The Vietnamese grower ran a straightforward game. Buy a nondescript house on a quiet street, grow three or four cycles of skunk weed. Fresh coat of paint, and sell the house to some sucker who wouldn’t know it was full of mold until long after the check had cleared. Toughest part of the guy’s operation was finding people fool enough to live in the houses while tending the plants, yet straight enough to fit in.
“What happened,” Perko asked.
“They get nosey?”
“Kid got lonely. Had a barbecue.”
“You gotta be kidding.”
“Cost me crop, both houses. Now I have to pay lawyers.”
The Vietnamese sighed. “They are the breaks.”
“Them,” said Perko. “Them’s the breaks.”
“Problem is, my down payment.”
“House is a crime scene. No can sell. Have to wait.”
“Waiting ain’t my specialty.”
“I pay. Five thousand a week. You have in no time.”
“I’d rather the weed. We had a deal.”
“Your money.” Nghiem nudged the white bucket with his foot. “Take it.”
“There’ll be interest.”
“See you next week. No problem?” The man grinned, mouth full of yellow teeth. Perko imagined yanking them one by one with a set of pliers. Nghiem glanced over his shoulder to the white van. No question he had backup. His rod bent double, and he started reeling fast. Perko looked at the dying fish piled on top of one another. He tilted the bucket on its side to reveal a sliver of pink plastic bag. Pinching it between his thumb and two fingers, he tugged. As it pulled free, two fish started flopping, slapping his forearm, making it slick with slime.
He walked back to his bike and wiped his hands and the bag in the grass. He watched Nghiem land a rock bass, bang its head against the ground, and drop it in the bucket. Driving away, Perko was relieved to find the fish smell disappeared in the wind.
Bad enough Nghiem’s screw-up messed with Perko Ratwick’s plans to move a few hundred kilos of high grade pot. Business was business and the biker had talked his way out of worse corners before. The New York buyers would still be there once he found a new supply. It wasn’t about one deal, though. Perko had a real shot at making Road Captain in the Libidos Motorcycle Club. Launch himself into the big leagues—a guy who brokered deals between rival gangs and lined the Libidos coffers without taking on real exposure. Kind of like an investment banker, only quicker. And less paperwork.
He set a meet with a guy named Frederick who wanted into the Libidos in a bad way.
“Maybe it’s a good thing the gook fell through,” Perko said.
“Maybe I been coming at this wrong.”
The men were sitting at a picnic table in dead quiet downtown Bobcaygeon. The ice had barely broken up and the locks wouldn’t be operational for a few weeks yet. Perko said, “These locks run, what, five months a year?”
“’Bout dat,” said Frederick.
“And when they do, they’re only open something like eight, ten hours a day?”
“So, the water never stops flowing.”
“’Course not,” said Perko. “They control the water level, but they don’t kill the flow.”
Frederick looked from the locks to Perko and said, “What you mean?”
“Do I gotta paint the whole picture? Instead of waitin’ for some other guy to deliver supply, I could be growin’ myself. Year-round. Much as I like.”
“So you take on more risk.”
“Not if I do things right. Arm’s length,” Perko said. “That’s where you come in.”
“How come me?”
“You wanna patch Libido some day? Earn your stripes. Couple things I need you to do.”
Frederick nodded slowly.
“First, find me a grower,” Perko said. “Make sure he’s no fool.”
“And the other thing?”
“It’s a little more complicated,” Perko said, and told him about Nghiem’s rate of pay.
Perko decided to go all pro. Thinking about Nghiem’s lonely grower and the barbecue, he wasn’t about to put his own name on the deed for some suburban shack on a street full of busybodies. Besides, once he got the gig going, he’d need two houses, then four. Before he knew it, he’d be back begging product from the fish-frying bastard. Never mind how many growers he’d wind up hiring. The more he thought about it, the less his plan felt risk-free. The Libidos would let him run with it, take their cut, but his ass would be hanging way out there. No, what Perko needed was a large-scale operation. Leverage.
He found a farm.
Mildred Perrigrew owned the farm and had lived on it for nearly sixty-five years, starting when she married Orvus Perrigrew the week she graduated from Grade Ten. Orvus was twenty-two at the time and had only stayed in school himself until Grade Six, dropping out to work the farm with his uncle until the elder Perrigrew passed away. When Orvus inherited the land, he immediately looked around for a mate. Marrying Mildred was a real coup: he got himself a young wife as well as a capable bookkeeper, since Mildred had taken both accounting and typing classes for the two years she was in high school.
All of this Perko Ratwick learned from Mildred herself when he responded to her ad in the Peterborough Examiner:
FARM FOR RENT
Good barn. Better house. Not much of a woodlot, but good water and some apple trees. $3,000 monthly. Cash only. Contact Mildred at Hillview Retirement Residence, Peterborough.
Perko tried telephoning, but the attendant said Mildred had left strict instructions that she intended to meet potential renters in person.
“You can tell a lot about a man from looking in his eyes, my daddy always told me,” Mildred said to Perko over a cup of coffee in the Hillview sun room. “Did I already say ‘Thank you’ for the donuts? Well, thank you, kindly, anyway. What a nice young man you are.” Perko had brought a dozen Krispy Kremes. Between the two of them, he and Mildred had already eaten half the box.
“I gave Orvus four children, don’t you know,” Mildred said. “Two girls and two boys, before I lost Orvus during childbirth.” She paused and watched Perko pick up flakes of dried honey from the table top with his fingertip. She gave a little shrug and continued: “It happened when I went into labor with Jeremy. Orvus sent our eldest, Marianne, to fetch the doctor. Doc Grainger lived about five miles up the main road. Marianne was only nine at the time, but we were used to trusting her with important errands. She was pretty independent and knew how to handle a horse.”
“Right. So, do I gotta give the rent money to this Marianne or to you?” Perko asked, scratching his chin.
“To me, young man. It’s my farm, not the children’s.” She squinted at him and stuck out her lower lip. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes. I told Orvus, go get some hot water and clean towels. And step on it, I said, ’cause you know that number four is like as not to come along even faster than number three did. So Orvus tells Baxter—he was six, no, seven years old—to build a fire in the woodstove. Baxter ran straight out to the woodshed to get some logs. Then, don’t you know it, Greta—she was barely two and a half—well she decides she wants a bottle, and she started to cry.
“‘Don’t you be worried about me, Orvus Perrigrew,’ I told him. ‘You just give Greta her bottle and then come back with some water for me to drink. The doctor will be here soon enough. Besides, it isn’t as if I’m new to childbearing.’
“So off he goes and leaves me in the bedroom, and Greta follows him out to the kitchen. There was a jug of milk left from breakfast because I always made sure we kept enough for the afternoon. I guess Orvus must have been pouring the milk into a saucepan to heat it on the stove, because I heard Greta get all excited. I figure she was hanging on his pant leg the way she liked to do some times, because I heard Orvus say, ‘No sweetheart. We can’t play airplane right now. Poppy’s got to take care of Mommy.’
“The next thing I hear is Baxter shouting out as he stomped back in the kitchen: ‘Here’s the wood, Poppy.’ I figure the door must have struck Orvus on the backside because, well, Baxter told me later, Orvus just spun around, with Greta hanging onto his pants for dear life. I heard her shrieking, but it was for joy, you know, the way babies do. Baxter stumbled and I heard the logs he was carrying spill onto the kitchen floor. Baxter told me Orvus’s feet flew out from under him when he stepped on one of the rolling logs. He landed flat on his back. That was one very loud crash, mercy me. I jumped right out of the bed, labor or no labor, and walked across the bedroom so I could see into the kitchen. The saucepan had flown out of Orvus’s hands and clattered down beside him. There was milk everywhere. Greta was bouncing up and down on Orvus’s belly and shrieking, ‘Again, Poppy! Again! Do fly-fly again!’
“Orvus wasn’t moving and I figured he must have smacked his head on the corner of the stove.”
“So, was he dead?”
“Dead? Dear me, no! It would take more than a knock on the noggin to do in Orvus Perrigrew. He was fine stock, my husband.” Mildred reached for another donut, took one bite and then licked her fingers as she passed it back and forth between her hands. Perko sighed and scraped some dirt from under his thumbnail.
“After just a moment or two, Orvus’s eyes fluttered open and he said, ‘I better get some more milk.’
“Well, it was early in the day to be milking a cow for the second time, but Orvus wasn’t about to leave his baby girl without her bottle, so he picked up the milk jug and headed out to the barn. And that’s the very last I saw of him.”
“So he just took off on you? Left you with the kids? End of story?” Perko asked, trying not to sound too hopeful.
“Of course not! What a silly question. He would never do such a thing. Besides, like I told you, Orvus died during childbirth.” She paused to eat half the donut. Perko grabbed one himself and shoved it whole into his mouth, pushing the last bit in with his thumb and wiping his fingers on his jeans.
“See, I got the pains again right after he left the house and so I made my way back to the bedroom. Baxter did his best to take care of me, and Marianne arrived with Doc Grainger soon enough. No one even noticed Orvus was missing until after Jeremy was born, cleaned up, and in my arms. Except Greta, of course, but her crying didn’t get a whole lot of attention once my pains began in earnest, and I was making all my own noises and such.
“Then Doc Grainger said to Baxter to go get his pa so he could meet his new son, and Baxter went out and came back white as a ghost two minutes later. He said, ‘Poppy’s under Bessie’—she was our cow—‘and he don’t look too good at all and he’s not talking or nothing.’
“Seems somehow Orvus must have tripped up Bessie while trying to milk her, or maybe she was real upset at getting milked a second time so early in the day. Whatever the case, Bessie’s leg was broken and all fifteen hundred pounds of her were laying on top of Orvus. Baxter said he had an awful grimace frozen on his face. Like he knew he was done for when it happened—and just how much Bessie was worth to our family. But there isn’t a whole lot a soul can do when a cow lands on you.”
Mildred quietly finished her donut and licked the honey off her fingers once more. She fixed Perko Ratwick in the eye and said, “So that’s how come I raised my children all alone on the farm. And maybe having to work so hard while they were growing up is why one by one they left the land as soon as a better opportunity came along—not that I blame them—and now I’m just too old to live out there but still I can’t bring myself to sell it because, well, you know, you just never know, do you. Maybe one of the grandkids will want to revive the farm. Or maybe they’ll just sell it once I’m in the ground, but that will be the kids’ decision, not mine. Now, what did you say you wanted to do out there, Mr. Smith?”
Perko shoved the last donut into his mouth, took a gulp of coffee and resumed staring at Mildred with his best attempt at an interested look. Half a minute passed before it dawned on him that the old biddy had stopped talking.
“Mr. Smith? I say, why is it you want to rent my farm?”
“I’m a…ahem…a painter,” he said. “I’m looking for a place where I can get close to nature. I especially like plants.” He paused and blinked slowly. Mildred stared at him like he was speaking in a foreign tongue. “Some of my canvases are really big, so I figure I’ll set up my operation in your barn.”
Mildred continued to stare. She asked, “Couldn’t you just rent an apartment or something? What do you need with a farm?”
“It’s real important to me to find peace and quiet. Money’s no object where my creativity is concerned.”
“You do realize the hayfields have already been rented to the neighbor.”
“I just need the barn.”
“It comes with the house, too.”
“Fine by me.”
“I’d feel better if you had a look at it first. I don’t want any landlord-tenant headaches at my age.”
“No really, I—”
The look in Mildred’s eye made Perko shut up and listen. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been put in his place quite so firmly. She said, “Here’s the key. You go have a look around and come back and tell me what you decide.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” he said.
“I’m not going anywhere.” She pushed herself to her feet and shuffled across the room to where a game of Snap was getting started. She gave him one last look, jerked her chin toward the door, and said, “Deal me in.”
Perko sat in the bow of the fishing boat wearing a floppy hat bedecked with lures. Using the electric motor, Frederick navigated close to the rocky shore. The water was deep enough he could have used the outboard but a silent approach was critical. They got within twenty feet of Nghiem before he even realized he had company. He smiled, waved, and cast his line in the opposite direction. When he noticed the boat was nosing up against the causeway he warned them to watch out for the bottom. Even when Perko jumped in the knee deep water and scrambled across the zebra mussel-encrusted rock, it was clear the Vietnamese took him for just another fisherman until he got a good look at his face. By then it was too late. Perko clocked him with a paddle and Frederick leapt ashore to help drag him into the boat. Frederick insisted on snatching the white pail full of fish. It wasn’t until he fired up the outboard and buzzed out onto the lake that there was any sign of movement from the white van facing the road. If Nghiem’s bodyguards did fire their guns, they missed. Perko couldn’t hear a damn thing over the two hundred twenty horsepower engine’s roar.
Drifting in the middle of the lake, Perko prodded Nghiem with his foot and splashed water on his face. “Scream and I’ll cut you some gills,” Perko said.
The man just lay there on his side in the boat’s hull, his eyes blinking like a bass.
“You’re gonna make a phone call,” Perko said. “My cash gets delivered, with a ten thousand kicker, before morning. All of it. If it don’t, the rest of your houses are going down, and we’ll find out how well you swim with your hands tied to your feet.” Perko asked him what number to dial then held the phone to his ear.
Frederick baited a hook and dropped a line off starboard.
“Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise, Mr. Smith,” Mildred said, flipping open the fresh box of Krispy Kremes.
Perko Ratwick remained standing. There were plenty more donuts where those came from, and he wasn’t in the mood to hear about life—nor death—on the farm he was about to rent. “Everything checks out,” he said. “I’ll take it.”
“Do sit, Mr. Smith. Tell me about your paintings.”
He leaned in close and said quietly, “I noticed a little unconventional wiring in a couple of the outbuildings. Mind if I clean that up while I’m out there?”
She nibbled a donut and looked as though she hadn’t heard.
“Mrs. Perrigrew, I’d like to rent your farm.”
“Like the ad said, it’ll be three thousand dollars a month, in cash, and I would very much like it if you brought a box of these donuts with you each time you come to pay me.” Perko offered Mildred his hand and she shook it. “You know, you do smell rather like Orvus did. A real manly smell. Have you been fishing?”
Forcing a smile, Perko took a thick wad of bills out of his jacket pocket. Mildred’s eyes sparkled wide when she saw the money, then narrowed again suddenly. “First and last month’s rent, of course,” she said.
Perko grinned and nodded. It wasn’t like he’d be coming back any time soon.
“And did I mention that there would be a damage deposit? I can’t very well be chasing after a young buck like you at my age, now can I?”
“Here’s the first eight months rent,” he said, thumbing a stack of bills and laying them on the table. “And other five grand damage deposit.”
Mildred’s eyes darted left and right as she swept the money off the table and tucked it into a large pocket on the front of her frock. She seemed satisfied nobody had witnessed the transaction.
“Well, now, that’s mighty thoughtful of you, Mr. Smith.”
As Perko turned to leave, she said, “Mr. Smith, could you do me a favor?”
He forced his shoulders to relax and pasted what he hoped was a friendly smile on his face. “What?”
“On your way out, kindly tell that nice young man at the front desk I will be taking the bus to the Horned Owl Casino this evening, after all.”