George Weir will be joining us again for our Noir At The Bar February 16th, along with Jesse Sublett, John Schulian, and Joe R. Lansdale. Noir at the Bar meets at Opal Divine’s at Penn Field and starts at 7 PM. George will be promoting his latest, Errant Knight. At his first Noir At The Bar, he read this piece that was both dark and gross. For some reason we kept asking him back.
“The Loser” by George Wier
The Loser had the kind of face that made tougher guys want to use it as a punching bag, and his face bore the evidence that a series of such men had been unable to resist the temptation to do so in the past. His acne scars didn’t help matters, either.
He leaned with his backside against the chalk table and held an arm extended parallel with the plank floor of the place to grasp the cue stick held at perpendicular such that he could have been doing an audition for the part of Pharaoh in some local theater troupe, except for the fact ‘loser’ was practically written on his face. One corner of his mouth turned up to give him a know-it-all, sardonic, self-satisfied grin.
Erica saw him standing there like that, surveying the lay of the billiard balls before him, and was instantly drawn to him. That was Erica all over again ― always going for the losers.
Erica didn’t learn his name until after she’d completed her first treatment and after the FBI had finished grilling her there in the hospital. But that was later, after she’d made a complete ass of herself by throwing herself at the guy.
His name was Lonnie Wayne Smith, although she didn’t know his name at that point. Still, she recognized him instantly for the kind of guy who would make her father want to stomp him into the dirt, and after that she couldn’t help herself.
Her friends, Lori, Matt and Kyle, thought she’d gone off the deep end. She was supposed to be there with Kyle, Lori’s selection of a match for Erica, but Erica and Kyle had taken an instant disdain for one another in the couples department, and so on the pretext of needing to use the restroom, Erica had left the bar up front and gone wandering through the place, back towards the pool tables. She had thought that maybe there was a rear exit back there somewhere which let out onto Fifth Street. This night, Sixth Street was beyond boring and there had to be something, somewhere for her.
And then there was The Loser. He was hers.
She saw that he was drinking a beer and went to the bar and got him another one. When she approached him and put it in his hand, his eyes met hers and he smiled. She then slipped under The Loser’s arm holding the pool cue and pulled it arm down around her waist. The Loser seemed to like it, as she knew he would. Erica wasn’t sure just when she started calling him The Loser in her mind, but that was also part of the whole enchilada.
Erica smelled something then, something either on The Loser or about him, underneath the sharp tang of beer and cigarettes. She didn’t know what it was, but it called to her mind… something. She couldn’t recollect quite what, but it was there and images of raw force and power pervaded her vision and made the tableau of the pool game and the bar seem like a fake picture, a bright patina, possibly, painted over some older, deeper and darker yet unknown masterwork. The Loser was a force of nature, this she knew instinctively.
Lori entered the room first, followed by Matt, then Kyle. The three of them stood looking at her. The Loser had his forearm pressed hard against one of her breasts.
“You’re up, Lonnie,” one of pool players said. He was just another loser, but much less of a loser than Lonnie, who was The Loser.
The arm came from around her and The Loser did what he did best: he acted the part of the infinitely bored as he ran the last four balls on the table, walking each ball into a pocket as though doing so was as inevitable as the summer sun.
Lori came over to her.
“Just what the hell are you doing? Kyle likes you!”
“No he doesn’t,” Erica said. “Besides, I think I found someone.”
“Yeah. I know,” Lori said. “I don’t like the looks of that guy.” Lori’s eyes turned to watch him strut around the pool table to grab a cube of chalk and flick-flick-flick it against the tip of his cue stick, as if aligning the molecules of blue chalk there just right. Her upper lip twitched spasmodically. No, Lori didn’t like The Loser one tiny bit.
“But I like him,” Erica said. “So do me a favor and fuck-off for awhile. I’ll catch up with you later.”
“No,” Lori said. “We’re you’re friends. And that guy ― he looks like a serial killer or something.”
“I like him.”
“Your screwed-up hormones like him,” Lori said. She turned and then over her shoulder said: “We’ll be in the bar a few more minutes. If you’re not back by the time we’re done, we’re coming for you.”
She looked over Lori’s shoulders at Kyle and Matt, and both of them slowly shook their heads at her in unison. The two could have been twins.
“Fine,” Erica said.
After the game Lonnie The Loser crowded Erica between the dark hulk of the defunct Ms. Pacman machine and the overly loud, partially blown-speaker Blasteroids game, and spent a bit of time French-kissing her and feeling her up. She had one brief orgasm there, his fingers doing the walking, which ended abruptly when he tried to stick his tongue so far down her ear that he almost contacted her eardrum.
“Come on,” Lonnie The Loser said. “You’re coming over to my place.”
But that never happened. The instant Lonnie turned around, Kyle was there. He punched Lonnie The Loser in the face. Lonnie collapsed to the floor, grasped at his nose with both hands and bleated like a sheep mid-slaughter.
“Erica!” Lori yelled. “We’re getting out of here. Now!”
Lori grabbed Erica’s arm in a vise-like grip and pulled her from between the two game machines. Matt came from the other side and lifted Erica up over a writhing Lonnie. The Loser, threw her one-ten pounds of weight over his football-player shoulders and the four of them made their way quickly out of the bar. Erica wouldn’t remember until much later—about the time she was having to tell the whole tale from start to finish for the FBI guys―that she had screamed bloody murder the entire length of the bar and halfway to their car.
All that occurred Saturday night. By Monday morning there was something decidedly wrong with Erica’s face. Besides the tender puffiness, her skin was rapidly streaking with strange marks. Her lips swelled up like little purplish cocktail sausages. She was also losing hearing in one of her ears. And Erica itched — badly.
Lori took her to the Emergency Room at Brackenridge Hospital, again not taking no for an answer.
Lori stayed with her there in the ER for ten hours after the ER doc took skin samples. Meanwhile Erica’s face and head got worse. She itched and burned and she wanted to scratch her face off, but Lori kept holding her hands down. Lori wore latex gloves the whole time. That alone should have tipped Erica off.
Erica was sure they were going to give her some topical ointment, some sedatives ― hopefully Vicodin, which she would be able to sell to one of her friends ― and then let her go. But that idea, like many another of Erica’s ideas, was shelved when she was told she was being admitted.
About the moment she asked “Why?” in abject frustration ― and it came out sounding more like “Aye?” because of the way her lips and tongue were swollen ― in walked a man wearing a blue dinner jacket flanked by another man in a police uniform. The fellow in the blue dinner jacket introduced himself as an FBI agent, and she instantly forgot his name. But it was the uniformed officer who would stick in her mind for the rest of her life.
“Before we get your signed consent and knock you out, Ms. DeWare,” the ER doctor said, “because we do have to get you to surgery right away ― you need to tell the whole story to these gentlemen.”
“What story?” she asked, only it came out “‘Ott ‘owey?”
The uniformed officer introduced himself as Ralph Bigham. “About the guy in the bar who was kissing you,” he said.
Ralph Bigham was with the Office of the Travis County Medical Examiner. Although he was no doctor he was, nonetheless, a forensics expert. Ralph mostly handled the cold cases, those files still open but that were, officially, at a dead end.
Ralph had moved to Austin a couple of years back after a stint as a Sheriff’s Deputy in Brazos County. He’d left not long after he’d loaned his sidearm to a convicted felon who was intent on solving a murder case that the local powers-that-be wanted closed. Even though Charles Lyman, the felon, had solved the case, took down one of the two killers and helped send the other one to prison, Ralph had seen the writing on the wall. Ralph was no longer welcome in the Brazos County law enforcement community.
The next step up was Austin. He had packed his bags on a Friday afternoon, drove to Austin on Saturday morning, and by Saturday night had gotten a job with the Coroner ― a job that few others would have accepted for any amount of money, much less actively sought.
Now, two years later, there was a chance that the little red-haired University of Texas sophomore, Erica DeWare, was going to help him put most of a shelf of cold case files to bed. And it was the shelf that had bothered him the most since arriving, as three of the cases had occurred during his brief watch.
Ralph sat on the edge of her Erica’s bed and smiled at the girl.
“You suffer from a flesh-eating bacteria,” he said.
When he saw that Erica was going to get hysterical, Ralph said “tut-tut-tut. They’ve caught it in time to save your face and your hearing. You’ll be fine. Just fine. But it will take up to a four-week stay here in the hospital for you to fully heal. Now, you have to listen to me carefully.”
“You have a bacteria called Necrotizing fasciitis. There is only one place to find this particular strain of the bacteria. Are you following me?”
She nodded again, and Ralph Bigham could see that he had Erica’s full and complete attention.
And then he told her.
They came for Lonnie Wayne Smith in the middle of the night and quietly surrounded his home. Two dozen men and women were in the team, eleven Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, a five-man crew from the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms Division of the Department of Justice, four from the Austin Police Department Hostage Crisis and Sniper Unit, two Travis County Sheriff’s deputies, and Ralph Bigham and a bookish little woman ― Ralph’s assistant ― Delores Rogers. Delores gripped her twelve-gauge riot gun in a white-knuckle grip.
On a prearranged signal Ralph and another man wearing black over bulging kevlar gripped a miniature battering ram between them, counted to three in a whisper as they swung it back, swung it back, and then slammed it into the wooden panel next to the doorknob.
The door slammed open and seven black shapes poured into the house.
When they entered his bedroom, Lonnie Wayne Smith was just getting out of his bed. He was in his George Foreman underwear.
“What?” Smith asked. But then the dark shapes poured into his room and tackled him, rolling him off the backside of his bed and into the wall.
“We got him!” a voice said into a tiny microphone and was picked up by forty different sets of ears — the men and women both in the house and outside, and the backup team around the block.
“What? What? What? What?” Smith yelled and continued to long after he was cuffed.
“Lonnie Wayne Smith,” Ralph Bigham stated. “You have the right to remain silent…” Ralph continued the Miranda warning and at end of it, after one of the ATF guys had turned on the bedroom light and they all lifted their night-vision goggles to rest perched atop their foreheads, he continued with the rest of it.
“Additionally,” Ralph said, “this is a search warrant signed by a District Court Judge, duly empowering me to search this premises for certain evidence.”
“What? What evidence?” Smith stated. Smith looked a sight. His hair was disheveled and his face was purplish and swollen, no doubt from where Kyle Anders had punched him the face in the bar on Sixth Street on Saturday night. But, then again, Lonnie Wayne Smith did have a face that looked terribly punch-able.
“Well,” Ralph said. “This warrant is not general at all. It says here very specifically,” and Ralph pointed at the line of fine handwriting. “We’re to search for human remains.” Ralph Bigham keyed the microphone below his lips.
“Parchman, bring in the dogs.”
“There is only one place to find such a bacteria. Are you following me?” Ralph Bigham said, there behind the billowing curtains in the Brackenridge Hopital ER that Monday night.
And Erica nodded.
“Good,” he said. “Dead people, Ms. DeWare. The rotting flesh of dead people. Your Lonnie is the serial killer we’ve been looking for these last five years.”
And at that moment, although there was zero for contents in Erica DeWare’s stomach, she began yarking up every bit of fluid to be found there. Ralph Bigham hopped up and grabbed a towel for her. Her friend Lori grabbed the plastic tray beneath the rolling dinner tray by the bed, but they were both too late.
Another day going down. Ralph Bigham breathed in the air over LadybirdLake, locally referred to as Town Lake. All those health-conscious people down there running the long jogging trail around the lake. So many of them.
Ralph lit his cigarette and inhaled deeply. He had taken to smoking after moving to Austin, mostly because several of his favorite co-workers were smokers.
Six bodies had been recovered from Lonnie Wayne Smith’s basement. It was interesting to him that the house even had a basement―there were damned few basements in Austin, likely due to the rocky nature of the soil. But Smith’s house had been built around 1895, and while it may not have been one of the architectural jewels of the Victorian Era, it was spacious, well-made and solid. Someone, somewhere back in that previous lost century, had been determined to dig. Unfortunately, all these years later, someone else had chosen to stock the place, but with exactly the wrong thing.
Lonnie Wayne Smith had been indicted by the Grand Jury that morning. Three of the Grand Jurors, all men, had thrown up at the pictures. That’s when Ralph Bigham knew the case was going to be a slam dunk. Some lawyer would no doubt latch onto the case and try to plead it out to insanity. But then again the insanity defense usually didn’t go over well in Texas courts. Particularly for serial killers.
“The smell,” Ralph said. The sun was going down across the lake and to the west, and most of the canoes and kayaks were plodding their way across the surface back towards the various boat ramps dotting the shore. “Why don’t the neighbors ever notice the smell?”
Delores Rogers was there. She took the cigarette from his mouth and stubbed it out. “These things will kill you. Besides that, there’s a Burn Ban in effect. That includes smoking outdoors.”
“They don’t smell it because they’re kind of use to it,” Delores said.
“What do you mean?”
“I suppose we are talking about Smith’s neighbors, right?”
“Right,” Bigham agreed.
“Maybe in the back of their minds they know something is there. That it’s something very, how shall we say, not right. It’s there when they go out to their cars in the morning to go to work. Maybe they think ‘It’s coming up from the ground’ or ‘It’s those trashcans across the way.’ Something like that. Or maybe they’re afraid to know what they know. Like the neighbors must have known near Buchenwald or Auschwitz.”
“That’s a pretty bleak look, don’t you think?” Ralph said.
“Well, you asked,” Delores said. “But I’ll tell you what. What gets me is that girl kissing him. Letting him feel her up and everything. Like she said, she knew there was some smell there. Something ‘underneath’, she said. She just didn’t know what it was, though.”
“Underneath,” Ralph said. “Yeah. That fits.”
The two lapsed into silence for a moment.
“By the way, dogs do it,” Ralph said.
“They do what Lonnie Smith did. They find a carcass like that, then they play with it and roll around in it and get the dead smell all over them. I never figured that one out satisfactorily for myself. Why dogs do it, that is.”
“Dogs don’t do that!” Delores said.
“You have never lived in the country,” Ralph said.
Delores paused for a moment.
“True,” she admitted.
“But I think I know why,” Ralph continued. “It’s only a theory, and in this instance it only applies to the dogs.”
“I’m dying for you to tell me,” Delores said.
“I am willing to bet that Necrotizing fasciitis bacteria is nature’s only true and effective flea and tick treatment.”
Delores raised her eyebrows. “Ahh. I get it. But what about Smith? Why would he act like a dog? And why the hell didn’t his flesh start rotting?”
Ralph shook his head. “Since we’re having him held at the hospital pending a full toxicology report, I will guess that he’ll be found to be a carrier. And, by definition, carriers are immune. Classic Typhoid Mary syndrome.”
“Fleas and ticks,” Delores said, and shivered.
“Probably,” Ralph said, “he has skin problems when he isn’t messing around with dead bodies.”
Ralph detected Delores’ shudder.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get back down to the hospital and see what the lab guys have got so far. I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”
You can find copies of Errant Knight on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Come by Opal Divine’s at Penn Field on Tuesday, February 16th for an evening of booze, books, murder ballads from Jesse Sublett, and readings from Joe R. Lansdale, John Schulian, George Wier, and Jesse Sublett. The event starts at 7 PM.