View Cart
Hex Publishers is an independent publishing house proudly specializing in genre fiction: horror, science fiction, crime, dark fantasy, comics, and any other form that explores the imagination. Founded by writers, Hex values both the author and the reader, with an emphasis on quality, diversity, and voices often overlooked by the mainstream.

Shaky Ground

By Mark Stevens

“Whiskey?”

“Bourbon, actually.”

“Worth how much?”

“Well, retail is one thing. But you can’t get it.”

“And it was stolen?”

“Two cases. From the garage. I mean, they look like ordinary boxes. Nothing special.”

“And you didn’t tell the cops?”

Candace Jones gave a naughty-girl grimace. “Even a bottle is hard to come by.”

“So you told the cops—”

“About the Nikon getting lifted—it was on the front seat of the Tesla, thank God they weren’t after the car.”

He smelled the opportunity to spend a week upgrading from store crackers and Cheez Whiz. They stood in her kitchen, three times the size of his apartment.

“The leaf blower too,” she said.

“Leaf blower?”

“I know, right?”

Her pants could pass for pajama bottoms. They looked silky with Chinese dragons. Her top was a peach number, the top buttons undone.

“Something special about the blower, Miss Jones?”

“Not as much as the bourbon.”

“So, tools and bourbon.”

“And the camera.”

“Cops?”

“They were here. Made a show.”

“Which was?”

“Mid-day yesterday.”

“You were here?”

“No, at lunch.”

“Where?”

“A placed called Ladle. Do you know it?”

Only the priciest, snobbiest joint in Cherry Creek. Certainly, based on the quality of his tailoring, she must know that a splurge for Private Investigator Waylon Furlong meant a trip to Denny’s. What she’d never know was that he was once the restaurant critic for the newspaper and, in fact, had tried to take Ladle down a peg, to no avail. He knew his tarragon from thyme, branzino from ordinary bass. He’d spent two decades eating his way through town. In the four months since he took the newspaper up on a buyout, it was all protein and vegetables, not a drop of sugar or booze. He’d lost forty-three pounds, went back to his given name, but he was fifty, still round and soft. His large head and dark brow still drew the occasional Ed Asner quip. “Read about it,” he said. “Months to get a reservation.”

“Unless you know people,” she said. “Anyway, I was at lunch.”

Candace Jones took a moment to steel herself. Clyde stared at his worn black loafers, in sympathy.

“You feel so violated,” she said. “I mean, the nerve.”

She pulled on a turquoise jacket. He followed her through the enclosed patio and down a broad set of concrete steps to the expansive back yard, dusted in gold and red leaves.

The garage sat on the back of the property, smack on the alley line.

“I cleaned up the broken glass,” she said.

Furlong gave her a look.

“I mean,” she said. “I had Roberto take care of it.”

“Roberto?” Maybe he did have instincts for this new job.

He felt the shudder in his feet. He reached for the top of the brick wainscoting to steady himself. He looked up, out of instinct, to see if anything might fall. Or might be thinking of falling. It was his biggest nightmare, to be standing in the wrong spot and get conked in the head. He stared up into a high overhead canopy of a dense yellow buckeye. Somewhere, a car alarm burst. He started a counter in his head when he sensed the first rumble. He hit nine, ten and almost eleven when it stopped.

“Four point two,” he said. “Just a hunch.”

“So annoying.” She shook her head.

“Was that the third one today or only the second?”

“Too many,” she said.

The quakes started in January. Three a week, five a week and then a couple a day or more. For nine months now, the biggest business in Metro Denver involved securing stuff—pictures on walls, china in cabinets, tools in sheds and garages, anything that could rattle loose. All the stores switched away from open shelving, especially for anything made of glass. Every quake seemed to find an old church steeple. In most cases, the quakes resulted in property damage but the doctors and hospitals were flooded with bad cuts and head wounds. Metro Denver had joined the ranks of Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Pennsylvania’s Lawrence County among the most heavily fracked zones in the United States.

“Roberto?” said Furlong.

“My gardener. Our gardener.”

“Where was he?”

“Tuesdays are his day off.”

“And how many people are aware of that?”

“Oh, clever, Mr. Furlong. Very. I like the way you think.”

“Is he here today?”

“He should be back any minute. Yesterday’s shake put a crack in the tub of the guest bath. He went to Ace.”

She showed him where the boxes had been stored, where the Tesla had been parked, where the leaf blower hung. The Toyota Land Rover, she said, was hers. Perhaps it was waiting to go on safari.

“It’s good bourbon?”

Candace Jones closed her eyes as if in her own mild earthquake from a faint orgasm. “Heaven.”

“Worth stealing?”

“It’s creamy. Nutty. Chewy. And a bit of spice. They use wheat or something, not rye. Larry would know.”

“Larry?”

“My husband.”

“He likes it too?”

“But I’m hoping to find the Pappy’s before he finds out it’s been stolen because he’s going to—”

“Excuse me.” Furlong held up his hand. “Whoa.”

“Yes?”

“If I find out who stole the cases, my hunch is the bottles themselves will have vanished faster than you can say David Copperfield.”

“But I only need the Pappy’s.” She looked like she might cry. “You think it’s a lost cause?”

“I feel obligated to offer the professional caution, you know, based on my experience.”

“Noted,” she said. “When can you start?”

“Do you care about terms?”

“Of course.”

“Fifteen hundred a day plus expenses.”

Candace smiled. “That was easy.”

“Even though I’m dubious.”

“My insurance policy requires an effort,” she said. “I’ll need a written statement. From you.”

“I'll need to talk to anyone with regular access to the garage. But you don’t want to mention this to your husband because?”

She blinked as if she was tapping out Morse code with her lashes.

“Because he’d die,” she said. “I mean, seriously.”

“You two getting along?”

“What has that got to do with this?”

“I’m going to check every angle,” said Furlong. Already, he was thinking of a nice steak at Elway’s for dinner, a Nebraska slab. He didn’t want steak from jittery Colorado cows. “I’ll talk to the neighbors, see if anyone saw anything.”

“By all means.”

He knew so much comfort could not also come with marital bliss.

“Well.” More blinking. “Are things perfect with me and Larry? Frankly, I wanted us to move to Perth, cash it all in, and soak up the sun. I’d rather be in a country where fracking and earthquakes are less common than mail delivery.”

“Kids?”

“One girl. Off to Golden, School of Mines. Follow in her daddy’s footsteps.”

“Doing?”

“I thought you knew. Oil and gas. He’s a geologist.”

***

Roberto knew nothing. The morning of the burglary, he had been out front raking up the seed pods shed by the giant Catalpa. Roberto had clear brown skin the color of caramelized flan. He was about sixty, with gray eyebrows. He discovered the break-in. Nothing about Roberto suggested anything but loyal.

“And you park where?”

On the opposite side of the garage, Roberto pointed to an old red Chevy pickup. The truck sat on a square of parquet brick big enough for a basketball game.

“Did you park here Monday?”

“No. I remember because the edger was in for repair. I picked it up and drove here but I had to park out front because there was a cable TV truck blocking the alley, orange cones and a big ladder.”

“Parked where?”

“In front of Miss Jones’ garage.”

“Why Miss Jones?”

“She’s my boss. He’s always travelling, teaching the world about this fracking.”

“Does she have cable?”

“Every channel. But they were working on the house across the alley.”

“You talked to them?”

“No, but when I was back here for the gasoline can, the ladder was up on the other side.”

“So you were back here?”

“To get tools. The rest of the morning was all out front until I came back to put things away.”

“And noticed the glass?”

A square pane, one of nine, punched out on the side door to the garage.

“Yes.”

“And was the cable truck still here?”

Roberto removed his hat, scratched his forehead. “No.”

***

The Jones’ home was not fixed with security cameras but the neighbors had six—three out front and three in back. The tech-savvy husband worked at home as an investment adviser. He greeted Furlong and ushered him downstairs once he understood the nature of the visit. The house carried a whiff of bacon and sautéed chanterelles. The man told Furlong to call him Spike. He wore powder blue shorts and a lemon short-sleeve button-down as if his yacht was waiting. His plump cheeks were boozy, the color of steamed crab.

Spike pulled up his security-cam app. He zipped through the file from the backyard cameras. Number two camera, at 9:13 a.m., offered a good view of the cable TV truck arriving. . Two men removed a ladder from the top of the van. They walked out of frame. Spike pulled up camera one, mounted on the third floor of the house with an HD view of the entire backyard. He entered a time code and they watched synced-up screens. They could see the ladder bob like it was floating in an invisible sea. No view of the men, however, blocked by an ivy-covered fence that had to be eight feet tall.

“They didn’t bother with the quake guards,” said Spike.

Hardware stores made a killing with wide rubber bands, thick as an old razor strop and as elastic as a bungee.

Furlong directed as Spike toyed with the fast-forward and fast-reverse, the cable truck zooming up and down the alley like the Keystone Kops on amphetamines. Spike made screen grabs of the truck’s license plate and got a decent shot of each of the two men. The driver was white, with a well-tended beard, sunglasses and a gold chain around his neck. The guy riding shotgun looked Hispanic. He had cantaloupe shoulders, a wide face, and long black hair. He looked as tall as the truck and walked with his arms out to the side as if he was perpetually ready to draw six shooters from double holsters.

“Whatever they stole,” said Spike, “Larry Jones can replace it faster than you can pick up the telephone and dial 9-1-1.”

“Really?”

“Every time you feel a tremor, imagine the money in his bank account making little babies.”

***

Furlong occupied a cubicle in a co-op space amid the espresso-sipping millennials in RiNo. He pulled up the state license plate database on his computer. The plates were registered to Thomas G. Brock with an address in Cherry Hills, not the neighborhood one associated with two-bit thieves. Furlong put the name and address in Google and quickly came across an obit. In August, Thomas G. Brock, seventy-four, had been driving in Deer Creek Canyon when a giant boulder rattled loose during an earthquake. The boulder bounced and skipped for a quarter mile before landing directly on Brock’s Lexus. The story buzzed for a week, prompting discussions about the safety of roads through the mountains. The iconic shot from the news coverage was the pancaked automobile. Its condition told everything that one might need to know about the sudden manner of Thomas G. Brock’s demise.

The Denver Post staff photographer who took the photo was Carrie Coover. She was happy to hear Furlong’s voice on the phone. And happy to do a favor. Coover and the other photographers had taken hundreds of shots of apps and dishes and desserts he was about to review. Coover had him hold a moment while she pulled up all the frames she’d shot from the accident and read the name on the flatbed truck that had hauled away the wreckage, D & B Towing on South Federal Blvd.

An hour later, including a stop for Ca Kho To at his favorite Vietnamese hole-in-the wall, Furlong parked across the street from D & B, a converted gas station with a side business in selling used cars. The man in charge greeted Furlong with all the warmth of a parking ticket judge. He looked about fifty. His name was Phan Tu. Maybe he could smell private eye. Or the Ca Kho To.

Furlong showed him the screenshot printout of the two in the cable truck. Tu pointed without hesitation to the driver. “Nicky Numbskull,” he said. “Total loser.” Tu’s English was worthy of the queen. “And his buddy Juan Ameca.”

“Buddy?”

“Inseparable,” said Tu. “But he never worked here.”

“What’s Nicky’s last name?”

“Kotas.”

“Did he work here for long?”

“Work is a stretch.” Tu looked around. “Two months.”

“How long ago?”

“Fired him in late August.”

Brock had gone splat on August 19.

“What’s he driving?” said Tu.

“A cable TV truck.”

Tu laughed. His eyes smiled. “Quite worrisome thought, actually.”

“Know where he lives?”

Tu sat down at his computer behind the steel counter. He punched a grimy keyboard, stared at the bulbous monitor. He scratched an address on the back of his business card.

Furlong decided to call it a day. No point in rushing the invoice.

***

The next day, he waited until dusk. He found the address. The white van sat under a streetlight like a plump morel catching the lone ray of sun in a dark forest. The chilly October evening had swept the sidewalks of humanity, plus the buzz of a big football game. A Thursday night away game.

Furlong aimed his pocket flashlight into the windows on the van’s rear doors. No boxes, no nothing.

The neighborhood was scruffy, borderline. Given the state of his bank account, Furlong knew what he had to do.

“Who the fuck are you?”

“Waylon Furlong. And I’d like to ask you a couple of questions.”

Nicky Kotas looked younger in person, less substantial. A Broncos cap sloped down over his eyes. The skin on his cheeks looked rough like the surface on a bowl of hot oatmeal. The air leaking from his house smelled as if a bong had been in constant use since Cheech met Chong.

“Wrong neighborhood, wrong planet.”

“We can keep this real calm.”

Furlong’s voice caught. Inside, he was amped.

“Or?”

“Or we can involve others.”

Behind Kotas, two guys sat on a couch. He could only see legs, the flipped-up back of a Domino’s box, and a nest of tall-boy Coors. One of the guys had to be Ameca, the bruiser.

“I have no idea who you are. And it’s right in the middle of the fucking game.”

Furlong wondered how long it would take to pick up a contact high.

“All she wants is the whiskey. Bourbon, actually. The rest?” He shrugged. “She don’t care.”

“Whiskey?”

“The Pappy’s. Aged twenty-three years, I’m told. It’s wheated. And it’s got a sweeter taste.”

“Fascinating.”

“Where is it?”

“Where is what?”

“Her bourbon. Her boxes of bourbon.”

“I didn’t steal it.”

“You weren’t installing cable. That’s for sure.”

“Will you go the fuck away?”

“And call the cops?”

“You got nothing.”

“Except a picture of your face in the alley. Or I can talk to your buddy Juan if he’s here. A sudden jolt in the announcer’s voice carried the news that the Broncos scored. One of the pizza potheads said, “Get back in here Nicky Boy, your team just went back on top.”

“One sec,” shouted Kotas.

“Well?” said Furlong.

“You’ll leave me alone?”

Furlong nodded.

“No cops?”

Furlong nodded. “They’re kissing this off.”

“I didn’t steal anything.”

“Meaning?”

“You getting paid?”

“I should hope.”

“By her or him?”

“Does it matter?” Furlong tried for genuine concern. “Far as I’m concerned, we never talked.”

“Right, you just used your mad genius to look in the shed.”

“Shed?”

“South side of the property. Not very big.”

“You only moved it?”

“All I gotta say is that must be some good shit. The way they’re treating it, it must be gold.”

***

The next morning, Furlong emailed Candace Jones.

“Making progress. Found a lead on the west side. More soon. Might stop over tomorrow.”

She replied: “Afternoon better. I’m leaving around 9:30. Should be back by 1 p.m.”

An extra day of “work” wouldn’t hurt his bottom line. Furlong treated himself to breakfast at Snooze, a couple blocks from his mini loft in RiNo. He ate sweet potato pancakes and did the New York Times crossword. One clue was “Famous NOLA Street.” Seven letters. He went to an early movie, felt the low-grade rumble of an earthquake during a chase scene. None of his five fellow filmgoers flinched. He thought about moving to Durango. He heard it wasn’t big fracking country.

He grabbed a hamburger at the Wynkoop, went to the downtown library to read magazines, then shopped at Sprouts, bought chicken sausages, salad stuff and ate at home. How would he justify looking in the shed? Would she renege on paying him when he caught her trying to steal form her soon-to-be ex?

The news said that the earthquake he’d felt during the movie was a big one, the epicenter halfway between Platteville and Greeley, an hour’s drive north. It was a 6.2. He remembered counting to nineteen. Several barns had collapsed, a few old houses, too. A tree had fallen on a teacher, but everyone said she had saved a dozen lives, because she’d seen it coming and scooted kids out of harm’s way. Furlong flipped channels. All the reporters camped with the same view of the giant fallen tree. Chain saws buzzed under big industrial lights, spewing a fine mist of wood dust. School was cancelled, at least for tomorrow. The teacher’s name was Sally Wiznewski, twenty-eight, mother of two.

***

The next morning at 10 a.m., he walked down the alley, slipped in the unlocked gate and peeked in the garage to make sure the Land Rover was out tracking elephants. He walked back to his car, a block away, and drove up in front. He found Roberto and asked to take another look in the back.

He spotted the shed but didn’t make a beeline, in case. He wasn’t sure of what, but in case. Roberto watched. Roberto wanted to talk about the Broncos game, but Furlong didn’t know what to say.

Finally, Furlong pretended, Oscar worthy, to spot a trail from the side door of the garage. He followed it to the shed. If there was a trail, he could also later track a spider across glass. The doors on the shed opened wide. Bags of fertilizer and potting soil, unused planters, a branch trimmer, rakes, three kinds of shovels, hoes, ladder, a pitchfork, clutter.

Furlong squatted down and peered under the U-shaped shelf, pushing aside bags of seed and a giant spool of black hose.

Each box skidded on grit as Furlong dragged them into daylight. He opened the first and pulled out a bottle, some old geezer on the label lighting a cigar. Furlong had half a notion to crack a bottle and taste for himself. How good could it be?

He stacked the boxes between the garage and shed and found an Adirondack chair on the back porch. Roberto, smiling at first at the find and later looking tense as he understood the implications, went back to work.

Furlong listened to the leaves fall. He watched the trees sway in a stiff breeze. He stared at the boxes and tried to imagine their worth, how the consumer justified the cost-per-sip. He should know, after all. Two or three times a year he had tasted something so good that he had told readers to smash the piggy bank and go for it, some magical combination of flavors and textures that pushed the happy button and wouldn’t let up.

But a few thousand dollars—per bottle? He zipped up his jacket and dozed, the wind on his face.

A shadow woke him up.

“Mr. Furlong?”

He woke from a dream about linguine with black trumpet mushrooms.

“Yes.”

“Did I keep you?”

“No.”

He head-bobbed to the boxes. From the porch, they looked like two stacked sugar cubes, small and insignificant.

She feigned horror.

“Where did you?”

“Well, I think you—”

This one started with a hard jolt. It jammed adrenaline into every capillary. Candace Jones grabbed a fistful of Furlong’s coat. They both ducked, out of instinct, and he stared at the treetops. The sound was rock-shattering and earth-tearing. It had to be close. The shaking wouldn’t let up. He pulled her in tightly. They headed down the concrete steps, perhaps an instinct to get away from the house. Roberto came sprinting around the corner of the house, yelling something. They stood in the yard and heard a snap. A snap like a hundred firecrackers demanded they determine its source. His head turned in time with hers to the giant oak as it gave way and started its long, laborious fall.

The tree slashed through the gazebo as if it was made of balsa wood, shrapnel flying. The top of the tree had longer to fall and more damage to inflict. They both spotted the danger at the same moment.

“No!”

She yelled and broke their awkward embrace, starting down the steps into the cloud of flying branches and gazebo shards.

The tree caught the boxes flush.

It crushed the boxes as if laser-guided. Furlong heard a tinkle of glass in the maelstrom of crashing and watched the boxes crumple.

He followed her down into the fray. She sobbed. She got down on her hands and knees and crawled to the spot. He came in behind her, but found no need to go low. He kept his eyes up, but the rumbling stopped and the quake subsided.

She stretched out prostrate, her hands reaching for the broken glass, and wept.

The whiff was enough. The bourbon was nutty and sweet. It smelled, in fact, delectable.


Mark Stevens is the son of two librarians and was raised in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He graduated from Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in the suburbs of Boston and from Principia College in Illinois. He worked as a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor in Boston and Los Angeles; as a City Hall reporter for The Rocky Mountain News in Denver; as a national field producer for The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (PBS) and as an education reporter for The Denver Post. After journalism, he worked in school public relations before starting his own public relations and strategic communications business. He lives in Denver with his wife and has two grown daughters. He is a Colorado Book Award finalist and the author of the Allison Coil Mystery series.

Shaky Ground ©2016 by Mark Stevens. First Publication: Words November 2016, ed. Joshua Viola and Dean Wyant (Hex Publishers).

Back to Words