A few months ago in Ranchero, Rick Gavin's much-acclaimed Delta noir novel, Nick Reid and his compadre Desmond liberated some money from a nasty meth dealer, and now they need to launder it. After lending out a couple thousand dollars here and there, with hopes of getting a small return, all kinds of "investment opportunities" are coming out of the woodwork, and one of them has trouble written all over it.
The brother of Desmond's ex-wife wants a small sum to set up a scheme involving a trailer full of stolen tires. Which sets off all kinds of alarm bells for Nick, but Shawnica insists that Nick and Desmond help her brother out. In the next few days, they're set upon by a ninja schoolgirl assassin and a couple of Delta gangsters, and soon all thoughts of recouping their investment go out the window. They'll settle for just staying alive.
The twists and turns and the dry wit that made Ranchero a delight are all on full display once again in Beluga, Rick Gavin's latest.
About the Author
When he's not writing, RICK GAVIN frames houses and hangs sheetrock in Ruston, Louisiana. Beluga is his second novel.
RICK GAVIN is the alter-ego of writer T. R. Pearson. The author of several works of fiction and nonfiction, including the acclaimed novels A Short History of a Small Place, Polar, and Blue Ridge, he lives in Virginia. Nowhere Nice is his third Nick Reid novel, after Ranchero and Beluga.
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By Rick Gavin
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Rick Gavin
All rights reserved.
It seemed like a good idea even if it came from Shawnica's brother, who was a lowlife and a chiseler but could be inspired sometimes. Me and Desmond had been casting around for investment opportunities, and Shawnica knew we had a little money we were willing to let out. We'd taken it off a crazy Acadian meth lord the year before and didn't mind turning some loose now and then for a rate.
Shawnica's brother had done time in Parchman Prison for robbery and grand theft. Larry had stuck up a pharmacy and stolen a tricked-out Mercury Monterey that he'd insisted straight through to conviction his cousin had told him he could drive. He ended up doing a three-year bit, and all he got up to inside was filing the papers to legally change his name. While the rest of the cons were studying law books and writing their appeals, Larry petitioned the state to let him become Mr. Beluga S. LaMonte. It was his way, I guess, of starting fresh without doing anything constructive.
Larry was staying with Shawnica, and we drove over to hear his scheme. Shawnica's house set Desmond off. It was the one he'd been thrown out of once Shawnica had wearied of him. He'd ended up back at his mom's place in the room he'd grown up in, and Desmond hadn't been twin-bed size in a decade and a half by then. He was decent enough to still be helping Shawnica with the mortgage and repairs. Desmond was the one who cut the grass and kept the porch screen mended. He fixed the leaks and painted the walls, paid for Shawnica's cable TV, and he did it all with typical Desmond grace and fortitude while Shawnica barked at him and worked her way through a string of sleazy boyfriends.
I took it as my job to keep Desmond calm and focused no matter what we met with once we'd stepped inside. But then Larry was stretched out on the sofa with his feet against the wall. He was eating microwave popcorn and rubbing grease all over the afghan that Desmond's aunt had knitted Shawnica as a wedding gift. Desmond claimed to cherish it, but it was yellow and green and brown and so badly made it looked like it belonged under a saddle.
By the time Desmond had said, "Larry, dammit," there was nothing I could do. Once Desmond had decided a boy needed scuffing up, you couldn't really hope to stop him.
Desmond chuffed like a bear, crossed the room in two strides, and snatched Larry off the sofa. Popcorn went all over the place, along with all of Shawnica's remotes.
Larry said, "Hey!" or something, the way people will with Desmond. It's hard to know what to tell a man when he's turned you upside down.
Shawnica came scurrying out of the kitchen. She shrieked and slapped at Desmond. She was done up like usual with glittery stick-on nails and a couple of dozen metal bracelets, so there was the outside chance that Desmond would get sliced or brained outright. He ignored her for as long as he could while he lifted Larry over his head.
"Put. Him. Down," Shawnica told Desmond. I would have gone another way, since putting people down tended to be a key feature of Desmond's brand of scuffing.
He deposited Larry on the coffee table. It was made like a wagon seat, built out of knotty pine that went to splinters when Larry hit it. The whole house shook. The lights flickered. Larry landed on a couple of remote controls and busted them to pieces. It wasn't like we could keep from lending him money after that.
Shawnica blamed me. She always blamed me. She came storming over to wag a finger directly under my nose. So I got a full dose of her gardenia scent and the music of her jangly bracelet clatter.
"Uh-huh," she told me. I took it to mean that me and Desmond were living down to her expectations.
Larry had decided he'd best stay on the floor. He laid there checking for injuries. Larry was fine, of course. He was always fine. Larry was as indestructible as a cockroach and far luckier than he had any need to be. A fellow chasing him with a rifle once had been felled by his own ricochet, and some Little Rock Mafia hard-ass who Larry had sorely offended found Jesus for no good reason and let Larry off the hook.
Larry had grown to think, the way people will, that that was how the world worked. So he'd get all shirty when he'd meet with minor upsets, like getting pitched around his sister's front room by her former husband.
"What the hell!" Larry said.
Desmond objected to his tone and kicked Larry in the sternum, which caused Shawnica to slap me since I was handy for it.
"Hey," I said to Desmond. I knew better than to touch him. Once he'd started, Desmond would scuff up anyone who came to hand. "Hey!"
Desmond finally drew a deep breath and deflated a little. "All right." That was all he ever said to let me know the fever was broken.
"Damn," Larry told us all and rubbed his chest as Desmond helped him up.
Larry plucked up his empty popcorn bag and shook it at his sister. Instead of crawling up his sphincter, the way she would have done with us, Shawnica stepped into the kitchen to make a fresh sack for him.
Larry flung himself onto the sofa and tried three busted remotes before I leaned over and switched the TV off. Desmond parked in his skirted Barcalounger — Shawnica's Barcalounger now — and I perched on a hassock alongside him so he could only get at Larry if he crawled straight over me.
"Okay now," Desmond said. "Let's hear it, Larry."
Larry just looked at us. Wouldn't speak. He finally crossed his arms.
Desmond snorted. "Beluga," he said at last.
Even then, Larry passed a good half minute eating what popcorn he could forage off the couch. He finally told us, "Boy I know up in Collierville got a line on this thing."
It was going to be one of those conversations. I said to Larry, "What thing?"
"Tires," Larry told us. "Michelins. Tractor-trailer load."
"What boy?" Desmond asked him.
"Skeeter," he told us. "From the yard."
I didn't like either end of that. So this was some con he knew from Parchman with a name like a waterbug.
"Skeeter who?" I wanted to know.
Larry waved me off. "Don't matter."
If Larry hadn't been an in-law, we would have already tossed him onto the porch. A trailer full of tires and a couple of Parchman grads?
"Tell it," Desmond said to Larry.
Shawnica came in with his popcorn and half a roll of paper towels that Larry tossed directly onto the floor. He explained himself by informing Desmond, "You went and broke the damn table."
Desmond shifted. "Sorry about that ... Beluga."
"Skeeter knows tires," Larry told us. "These ain't no retreads or nothing. Straight out of the factory in Kansas or somewhere. Got the stickers and everything. Just like you'd buy them in the store. But that ain't even the beauty part."
Larry dug a fistful of popcorn out of his sack and shoved it in his mouth. About a third of it ended up on his lap until he'd brushed it onto the floor. He waited. We waited. We were going to have to request the beauty part.
"So?" Desmond said. "What's the beauty part?"
Larry laughed. "Them tires is stole already."
"Who by?" I asked him.
He waved a hand dismissively. "Some shitbag in West Memphis."
Larry pointed at me and grinned at Desmond as if to say, "Who the fuck is this?"
Ordinarily, I wouldn't have cared, but West Memphis is a hellhole. It's across the river on the Arkansas side and makes actual Memphis seem, by comparison, the seat of enlightenment and grace. The place is the Arkansas version of Tijuana without the college kids. Just ample drink and petty crime and the occasional beheading.
A West Memphian stealing tires by the truckful might be somebody we shouldn't know. That's all I was thinking, but the power of in-lawdom seemed to trump even that.
"What's the play?" Desmond asked Beluga LaMonte.
"Skeeter knows this guy, got a truck and shit. Said we could hire him out. Trailer's parked right down on East Monroe, back behind a church."
"You seen it?" I asked him.
Larry nodded. Larry told me, "Skeeter swung round there. He seen it, tires and all."
Desmond still wouldn't look at me.
"How much you need?" he asked Larry.
"Hold on. Let's hear the whole thing."
Desmond turned and studied me now. He gave me a look to let me know this was no time to get particular.
"I just want to know what they've got in mind," I told him. "Somebody's probably watching that trailer. Don't you think?"
Larry proved pleased for the chance to lay it all out. "We'll go in like ... three in the A.M. and haul it out of there. Got a buddy in Belzoni with a big tractor shed. We'll drop it in there and let the shit all calm down."
"What shit?" I couldn't help myself.
"Somebody bound to be mad."
Larry pointed at me again in his Who the fuck is this guy? way.
"How much?" Desmond asked him.
Larry shoved more popcorn in. He gave us a number we couldn't make out. It was just as well, because once he'd swallowed and told us again, it turned out that he'd said, "Fifty."
"Thousand?" I tried to make it sound like a point of clarification, but getting up off the hassock as I said it didn't help.
"Seems like a lot," Desmond told Larry. He turned around to find Shawnica in the kitchen doorway. "Seems like a lot," he told her, too.
She nodded and said to Larry, "Tell them what you need it for."
"Expenses and shit," Larry informed us.
I glared at the side of Desmond's head.
"Got plans for the tires?" Desmond asked Shawnica's brother.
Larry pressed his lips together and nodded like him and Skeeter had given that some deep thought.
"Going to find out what kind of sizes we have." Then he looked at me. "Tires come in like a hundred different sizes."
"So we figure what we got" — he was back on Desmond now — "and we work from here like down to Vicksburg maybe and let them go for a price. Stop at the garages and shit, take orders like people do." Meaning people who hadn't passed three years in Parchman changing their names.
"How many tires are we talking?" I asked him.
"Full load. Skeeter seen them. I don't know. Four or five hundred maybe."
"What are you going to ask?"
Larry reached down beside the sofa and plucked a catalog off the floor. It was from the Walmart in Indianola and had a page devoted to tires. Mostly tires from Bangladesh or Borneo or somewhere, but there were a few Michelins in the mix. They started at two and a quarter.
"We're thinking a hundred."
"Think seventy-five and get puckered to take fifty," I told him.
Larry pointed at me again.
"A hundred's steep," Desmond informed him, and then he informed Shawnica too.
"Might go eighty," Larry allowed.
"The shit's hot, genius. The trick is to move it."
This time he only looked at me, couldn't be bothered to point.
"I don't know," Desmond said. "Sounds all right to me."
"For fifty thousand?" I'm sure my tone had more of an edge to it than I'd intended. We'd taken three hundred grand off our Acadian fuck stick, so we had fifty to spare, but I just couldn't see the sense of giving it to Larry.
Desmond grunted. "I might can see about forty from here."
"Where the hell you looking?"
"Maybe," Desmond said and paused to swallow, "Beluga ... you ought to tell us about your expenses."
"Got to pay the truck guy. Got to grease a couple of boys in West Memphis, the ones that put us onto this shit in the first place. Need to pay some rent to the boy in Belzoni with the tractor shed. Then me and Skeeter'll be needing to get around all over the place. Ain't got no car between us. Got to have some money for that."
"What do you figure on driving?" Desmond asked him.
Larry described a Jaguar or something. He'd seen it on a lot over in Jackson. He veered into something close to raptures about the faceted chrome wheels.
I let him finish before I told Desmond, "I can see maybe fifteen from here."
"Hold on now," Larry told us both. "I'm going to double your damn money. You want that magic on fifteen or you wanting it on fifty?"
"Five hundred tires?"
Larry nodded at me.
"That's two hundred and twenty-five thousand. You double our fifty and give it back, that's a big bite out of that. Ought to whittle the expenses down. Bare bone it."
"Might listen to the man," Shawnica told him. I hadn't expected that.
"Forty, then," Larry suggested.
"I might can see twenty," I told him.
Desmond slapped his massive thighs with both his massive hands. "Thirty," he told us all and got up out of his Barcalounger, which was kind of a process given how much of Desmond there was to lift.
"Six months to turn it?" I asked Desmond once he was fully upright. He nodded.
"I hear you," Larry told us. He reached for the afghan to wipe his popcorn grease away and then offered his hand to Desmond, who swallowed hard and took it. He shook it once and grunted. He let Beluga have it back.CHAPTER 2
In Desmond's Escalade on the way to my place, I laid out my misgivings. Larry was preeminent among them, but I would like to have known who he was stealing from as well.
Desmond was in a grunting mood. Family will do that to you, so it was me talking mostly, with Desmond content to grumble behind the wheel.
"If Larry's right and this guy stole a load straight from the Michelin factory and has the stones to park it downtown, even in West Memphis, you got to figure he's connected somehow. One end or the other. Got people at the factory. Got people in West Memphis. Might be hooked up at both ends. You hearing me?"
Desmond turned onto my street off the main Indianola drag. It was a beautiful April evening with the rich Delta scent of flowers in the air.
"Yeah," he said. "Larry's problem. I'm sure we won't be messing with them."
"That's optimistic," I told him, and Desmond gave me a Desmond look that let me know we were finished talking about it.
"I'm taking it all out of your box," I told him as he wheeled into the drive.
Desmond grunted. Desmond said, "I would."
My landlady, Pearl, was out in the driveway looking for a cat. She had one of her late husband Gil's old flashlights with batteries he'd probably put in it. She would have been just as well off with a couple of birthday candles.
"Fergus!" She shouted it toward the neighbor's house, toward the back of her lot, toward me and Desmond rolling to a stop in her driveway.
Desmond looked at me.
"Cat," I told him. "Been AWOL for a week."
"Didn't know Pearl had a cat."
I flung my door open. "Doesn't."
That was about as near to a spat as me and Desmond ever got. I went in for door flinging. Desmond preferred neck noises. He made one and climbed on out.
"What are you looking for, Miss Pearl?"
Pearl was a proper Delta belle through and through. She might have been a fading flower and more down at heel than she'd ever imagined she'd get, but she still had that Delta debutante way of talking down to the coloreds. It wasn't a choice with people like Pearl. It was like being blond or having teeth.
"Aw, honey," she said and laid her tiny white hand on Desmond's shoulder. "My cat's run off. Told a friend I'd keep him for her. Don't know what I'm going to do."
That was typical Pearl. She couldn't keep anything straight in her head anymore. One of Pearl's friends had passed away. Not a Presbyterian friend but a canasta friend. Pearl had once explained the difference. It had nothing to do with the Lord. Canasta friends, as I understood it, were casual and fair-weather. If one of them got sick or had trouble in her life, she'd just get set aside and somebody else would take her seat. Presbyterian friends were different. You had to pretend to care about them.
So a canasta friend had passed away, a woman named Ailene. I'd actually been kind of fond of Ailene. She carried a pint of apple brandy in her handbag and was loud and vulgar, chain- smoked Salems, and played cards like a pirate. I could always hear Ailene laughing when Pearl had the game at her house.
She'd died a couple of weeks back in the beauty shop under the dryer. The girls thought she'd just dropped off to sleep and had a heroically high threshold for heat. Pearl ended up over at Ailene's house picking through her closets since Ailene didn't have any children, just second cousins down in Destin. When Pearl and her other canasta friends came away with what they wanted, Ailene's cat must have sensed that the jig was up and slipped into Pearl's car.
I remember the afternoon she came home from Ailene's because of all the screaming. I was changing my oil in the car shed and came out to check on Pearl. She was sitting in her Buick with the driver's door open. She was quivering and close to tears.
"You all right?"
She shook her head. "Went right across my lap."
I looked around. I didn't see anything. "What?"
"Possum, I think."
"Coming in? Going out?"
She pointed toward the side yard, more specifically toward a Nuttall oak that her Gil had planted and nursed. It came with a story like most everything around Pearl's house, and she launched into it automatically. That was the way with Pearl and her stories. Of course, I'd heard about Gil's Nuttall oak by then. How he'd dug it up down by Yazoo in a spur of the national forest and had brought it home wrapped in a towel and little more than a twig. Then he'd fenced it in to keep the squirrels away, had raised it to a sapling, had very nearly lost it in the '77 drought. But he'd watered it every night in direct opposition to city ordinance, and there it was — a glorious Nuttall oak right in Pearl's side yard.
Excerpted from Beluga by Rick Gavin. Copyright © 2012 Rick Gavin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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