Crime Fiction Friday: ‘Gumbo Weather’ by Thomas Pluck


Thomas Pluck’s Blade Of Dishonor made our Top Five Debuts of 2013. It gives Frank Bill’s Donnybrook a run for its money for the most fight scenes in one book. Pluck is also the editor of and a contributor to Protectors, a collection of over forty tales that raises money for child advocacy groups. He was recently published in Needle: A Magazine of Noir with this little piece of bayou nastiness.


Gumbo Weather
by Thomas Pluck

The daily sun shower speckled the windshield with diamonds.

“Know what you’re thinking,” Russ said from up front, perched like a stork in a motorcycle jacket.

“Reckon you do,” Jay replied. He lounged in back, cracking his knuckles. Squinting his steely, sunken eyes and turning the diamonds into stars. He ran a hand through his shock of black hair.

“You stomp this dumb shit’s hands with your work boots, he’ll just kick the kid around instead.”

“Maybe I’ll back the car over his ankles, then.”

“Man can’t work, he can’t pay. Sally Jiggs’ll want his twenty large from your pocket.”

Three points on twenty grand meant six yards a week. Steep price to pay, Jay thought.

Their man’s name was George Fells. Back when the Saints were the Ain’ts, George had bet against them hard. They won the big one, and he’d been paying for it since. Russ called it penance for disloyalty to the home team.

The man drank at Sally’s bar on Napoleon, near the port. If they busted George in there they’d scare off the gamblers, bring too much heat. So they waited a few spots behind his car in their banged-up cab, listening to summer rain hit the roof.

* * *

Last time George Fells was late, they found him at home. A little green house off Tchoupitoulas. It was windy and cold; gumbo weather. Jay rapped on the door.

“Get the damn door,” George said from inside.

“I’m making roux.” A woman’s voice.

George sank as he recognized them at the door. He was a swarthy bayou boy like Jay. He wore a Ragin’ Cajuns sweatshirt with the sleeves ripped off, and showed them his back after he turned the lock.

A little blond blue-eyed boy worked Crayolas at the kitchen table, and a woman in sweats and a ponytail stirred a pot of chocolate roux at the stove. Gumbo starter; flour and oil. She had her trinity—celery, bell pepper, and onions—diced in a bowl and ready to go. The heady scent filled the kitchen.

The woman rolled her eyes as the two men came in from the cold.

“Ma’am,” Jay said, nodded. Russ smirked.

George bumped his wife’s bony hips aside as he stomped past. His son looked up, hopped off his chair, went to hug his daddy’s leg.

“Outta my way, ya little shit.” He walked right through the kid. The boy fell on his behind, little eyes went wet. He started to wail.

The boy’s momma sighed, turned off the heat. “Ruined,” she said, avoiding Jay’s eyes. As she picked the boy up, his shirt lifted, revealing leopard-spot bruises.

Jay watched the room fill with red mist. Took a step, then Russ squeezed his shoulder hard. Brought him back to the acrid odor of burning roux.

George returned with a roll of bills and a frown carved above his stubbled coal chunk of a chin.

Russ counted. “You’re a yard short.”

“You’re taking it out my boy’s mouth, you vultures.”

“That boy you use as a punching bag, you piece of shit?” Jay grabbed George’s pinky and twisted. George shrieked, fell to his knees.

“Jay,” Russ said.

“You son of a bitch,” George said.

“Yep. A 22 carat bitch she was,” Jay said. “Not half as mean as the dog who fucked her.”

Jay dragged George by the hair to the stove.

George’s eyes went wide as Jay tilted the pot toward his face. “Roux gets hot as napalm. I made the bitch stop stirring, once. Can’t remember why. Still got the scars down my back.”

“Jay, c’mon now,” Russ said.

Jay shoved George away. “Now Georgie, you go kiss the little girls and make ‘em cry. But next time you’re short on the puddin’ and pie, I’m bringing the tin snips. And if that boy’s got a mark on him—”

“How’m I gonna work? I work with my hands!”

“We know all you do is type and talk,” Jay said. “You can hunt ‘n peck with nine.” He pushed him onto the floor, gave a dead-eyed stare. “Tell your wife I’m sorry we ruined supper.” He set the pot on the stove, and they left to make their next collection.

When they cleared the book best they could, they left the day’s envelope at the bar drop. Parked the work car at Sally’s taxi stand, and headed out in Jay’s purple Challenger for steaks at Charlie’s. Charlie had needed a loan to restore after Katrina. Sally anted up, so his boys ate free.

“You can’t beat the sick out of a man like that,” Russ said.

“Sure feels good trying.”

“Just saying, our job’s to collect, not save the world. Most of ‘em are degenerate gamblers. Some worse.”

“You can sit there, knowing he’s taking it out on her and that boy?”

“I took a whipping almost every day, growing up.”

“Me too. Don’t mean we liked it.”

“It ain’t our business.”

They worked on their steaks a while.

“You take the belt to your kids?”

“Hell no. But it ain’t your business if I do.”

“Okay, then. So you think it ain’t right.”

“I don’t kick back with Early Times every night like my old man did, neither.”

Jay pointed with his fork. “What if someone made it their business? Busted up your old man?”

Russ shook his head, poked at his potatoes. “I’d have to side with my Pop. He’s my blood. What about you?”

“I told you about that. Still looking for him.”

“You gotta let that go. It’s not like he named you Sue.”

Jay laughed, took a slug of Wild Turkey.

“You got the right,” Russ said. “What he did? It was me, I’d say he needed killin’ too.” He’d seen the constellation of cigarette burns on his partner’s belly. “But the rest of us, who just came up getting knocked around? It’s more complicated.”

“Reckon so,” Jay said.

“They didn’t know better,” Russ said. “Their folks whaled on ‘em too. That’s all they knew. Don’t make it right. Not one bit. Makes it harder to hate ‘em, that’s all. Once they’re old and weak.”

Jay nodded, staring into the amber of his glass.

“Your stepfolks, they ever slap you around?”

“Not a hair on my head.”

“I know, butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth.”

“Nope,” Jay said. “Slide right off like it was the Virgin Mary’s left tit.”

They shared a laugh, and bourbon too.

“Just ain’t that simple,” Russ said. “You hate what they did, but you love ‘em. So you find a good woman who holds you all night, tells you the sun shines outta your ass. She shits out a few beautiful kids for you. And you love ‘em the best you can.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Jay said. And they did. “You think George’ll whup ‘em harder, after what I done?”

“Who’s to say? You didn’t make him start. You ain’t gonna make him stop. Comes down to it, a man’s gonna do what he wants.”

* * *

That was three months back. Now there was another cold snap, and George Fells was a week late once more. He’d come in to Sally’s to bet on the Tigers game. Russ got a text from Clyde the bartender when he showed.

Jay stared into his own eyes in the rear view, then down at his hands. His step dad Poppa Andre had been good with his hands. Made a tidy living, working the beauty out of wood, making furniture. He and Aunt Angeline had fled Louisiana with him, saving Jay from that pit of hell. And they’d paid hard for it later.

Andre had told Jay to go school, to use his head, not his hands. But that hadn’t worked out. Jay had to take care of a bully at school who beat on his friends, and raped one. A mean son of a bitch who needed killing. Jay had paid for that with a quarter century in prison.

Now he tallied how he much he was willing to pay for George Fells.

He could sell the Challenger. It might cover the principal, and whatever bullshit payoff fee Sally charged. A Shylock never made it easy to quit. They’d bleed you forever, to get that weekly juice. Maybe Jay could buy a shitbox like this cab, and buy George’s loan.

Then he could slam George’s hands in the back door, and drive his wife and the boy to her kin, wherever they were. He could tell George the new vig was letting them go.

It felt about as real as the diamonds on the windshield.

George huddled against the rain in a gray hoodie. Russ rolled the window down and whistled for him. Instead, he took off.

Jay shouldered the back door open and ran. When he caught up, he yanked the strings of George’s hood closed, kneed him in the gut. Russ came up the curb to cut them off. Jay threw him in back, jumped on top, elbow first.

“Rent was due Friday, and you’re betting like a free man? Sally don’t like that.”

George coughed. “Gotta be so rough?”

“I’d rather be sitting at the bar eating oysters,” Jay said, and slapped him through the hood. “You make me run, I’m liable to be ornery.”

“Ain’t got it on me.”

“Pick a finger. Russ, get me the tin snips.”

“I got it at home,” George said. “No need for that kind of talk.”

Russ double-parked in front of the green little house. Was getting to know the way by heart.

Same small kitchen with the steel-legged table and white peeled floor. Gumbo simmered on the stove. George’s wife looked up with a yellow ring round her eye, as they shuffled in from the rain. Boy was on her knee, reading from a Little Golden Book. He eyed his father quick, then went back to his book.

“Two weeks’ juice, now,” Russ said.

George limped in back for the cash.

Jay whispered to the woman. “You got kin, ma’am? This ain’t right.”

“Mind your business,” she hissed, and didn’t look up.

George came out with an ugly little pistol.

“Easy now,” Russ said, and raised his hands.

“George, what are you—”

He cracked the butt down on her head. “Shut the hell up!”

She moaned and low-walked out the room with her wailing son in tow.

Jay kept quiet. Hands up. Stepped away, felt the heat of the gumbo pot at his back.

“You do this, you’re bringing hell down on your whole family.”

“This how it’s gonna be, boys. Russ, I know you got children. You stay.” George aimed the gun at him. Kept his distance. “Jay? You’re gonna hit the money drop.”

“You crazy? What you think that’s gonna do? That’s Sally’s money. You’re good as dead.”

“If you catch up to me.”

“It won’t be us, George. They’ll be worse. Don’t think they won’t shoot that boy of yours.”

“Jay, get goin’ now.”

“Russ has the piece, Georgie.”

“You think it’s real funny, callin’ me that?” He stepped forward, stuck the little revolver into Jay’s eye socket. “Maybe you come back, we’ll all be dead. Ain’t no other way out from under this rock!”

Russ’s hand drifted into the coat for his pistol. Jay saw it with his good eye. He wondered if George saw him look, if that was why he turned and shot Russ in the throat.

Jay dumped the soup pot on him. George screamed, firing into the ceiling as he clawed his bubbling face. Jay swung the pot back and forth by the handle, clanging off the man’s skull. When George collapsed, Jay hammered his face until it resembled a rotten cantaloupe.

Russ stared at the ceiling, haloed in a widening ruby pool. He mouthed a few silent words before his eyes went blank.

“I’m sorry, partner.”

Jay slipped the .45 and the payment book from Russ’s jacket.

He left the woman moaning in her parlor. Dumped the cab in Gert Town with the keys in the ignition, and took a streetcar back to the Challenger.

* * *

“Clyde, send him in.”

Jay shuffled in with his head down, hands in the pockets of his pea coat.

Salvatore Gingerelli held court in back of his bar, hunkered over a poker table littered with empty oyster shells and fat envelopes. He looked like a track-suited linebacker gone to seed, well-tanned, a fat cigar in his jeweled hand. His two favorite earners, Philly Lasardo and Lee Walker, flanked him.

Philly had a thick mane dyed black and wore glasses on a chain around his neck. He counted bills, and didn’t look up. Lee turned his pinched face toward Jay without a word. The iceman never said much. His eyes said enough.

“What’s on your mind, Jay?” Sally exhaled a dragon plume of Montecristo smoke.

“Russ is dead, Sal. George Fells shot him. I took care of him.”

Jay took the book out of his jacket, let the dog-eared pages flop among the seashells.

Sally nodded. “Sit down, Jay. Let’s talk about this.”

Jay hunched into his seat, chewing his lip. They already knew, that he was sure.

Sally took a decanter of scotch from the private bar behind him, poured it into two cut crystal rocks glasses. He nudged one toward Jay, who took a gulp.

“Anyone see you?”

“No. Wife and kid were in the other room.”

“So she knows. Lee, why don’t you call our friend at the 2nd precinct. Have him send someone friendly over.”

Lee nodded, flipped open a black phone, and walked to the back.

Sally dipped the chewed end of his cigar into his scotch. Scratched at his leg.

“George worked at the port, didn’t he?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good life insurance. Let her slide a few weeks. Get the funeral taken care of.”

Jay rocked in his chair, nodded. Fingered his keys in his pocket.

“Sal, she was asking. What would it take to pay off the principal?”

The big man laughed. “Whatever she’s got and twenty large more. Her husband killed a good soldier.”

Jay nodded. “He was a good man.” He stared at the shucked oyster shells a moment, then slid an envelope from his pocket. “Today’s bag.” He handed it to Philly, then stuck his hands in his pockets again.

“He was,” Sally said. “It’s our life. It is what it is.”

Philly opened the envelope, and frowned at the newsprint inside.

Jay fired the .45 under the table twice. Sal’s cigar dropped, the rest of him froze solid.

Dirty bills flew like feathers as Philly fell backward in his chair. Lee, a wiry old lion, leaped across the table at Jay and they tumbled to the checkered floor. He straddled him and wrenched Jay’s gun hand, the meat of his thumb against the hammer.

Jay reached up and stuck two fingers in Lee’s mouth. Yanked hard, gave the dour man a bloody smile. When Lee clutched his ruined face, Jay shot him through the hands. Philly wailed at the back door, pawing the bolt. Jay pushed himself up, Lee’s limp body rolling off him.

A shotgun barrel broke the outline of the doorway to the bar.

“Clyde,” Jay hollered. “Drop that thing, you dumb shit. Before I shoot you through the damn plaster.”

“You gonna shoot me anyway!”

Jay shot twice through the wall. The shotgun dropped. He never learned if he hit Clyde or not. Sally’s head hit the oyster shells, thick lips bubbling red. Snubby .38 in his hand. Jay put another round in his bald spot.

Out back, he shot Philly between the shoulder blades. Took the keys to his Cadillac from his pocket.

* * *

Cruising over Lake Pontchartrain, Jay boomeranged the gun toward the dirty water. He’d miss the Challenger’s muscle.

His father would get to live out his days whoring and stubbing out cigarettes in some backwater saloon. But Jay would leave the fat envelope with Russ’s wife, and whoever took over Sally’s book would find George Fell’s number marked paid in full.