New Pulp Press

"Bullets, Booze and Bastards"

Sample chapter from The Fever Kill by Tom Piccirilli

Crease had spent seven years carting his father home from barrooms and whorehouses, picking him out of the alleys and gutters and carrying him on his back through the frigid streets of Hangtree. The old ladies who woke before dawn would tsk loudly on their porches or smile with all the small cruelty they felt they deserved to pass back to the world. Edwards and the deputies would pace their cruisers alongside and follow mile after mile while Crease struggled beneath his father’s weight. The cops would keep their dome lights on so he could see their eyes, the way they grinned. Crease didn’t know who he wanted to kill more, them or his father or himself.

Sometimes Edwards would be waiting far ahead on the corner, his handsome features lit by a street lamp or the flare of a match from lighting a cigar. His golden curls drifting in the breeze, pale blue eyes burning. He’d wait until Crease would almost reach him, and then he’d get in the cruiser and fade down a side street, leaving the butt of his cigar still glowing.

This had been going on for so long that Crease had come to expect it, and accepted it as part of a now common, familiar pain he was meant to endure.

Sometimes he would carry his father past the Groell place, old lady Virginny silhouetted by diffuse orange light in one window, the sharply-defined shape of her granddaughter Ellie in another. The two of them in different corners of the house, staring out at the darkness, waiting. For him or some other distraction or promise to come creeping up the road.

That last night—with the wintry Vermont wind slicing down out of the north hills, the blunt roar in the trees masking his grunts as he strained to get them home—Crease felt the old man begin to sob against his back.

The tears ran against Crease’s neck and into his hair, steaming against his heated skin. His heart battered his chest, pulse snapping so hard in his throat that he thought the veins would burst. It would be an answer. His brow ran with feverish sweat, and colors seeped at the edges of his vision.

“I didn’t do it,” his father mewled.

“I know that.”

“The girl, Mary. What happened to her, it wasn’t me.”

Crease thought, If I hear this one more time I’ll go insane. It may have already happened. I might have gone over the rim. How could you tell if you were on the edge or if you’d already slid over it? He might be at the bottom looking up.

“You’re the only one who believes me, son.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“I’m sorry I brought this on you.”

“None of it’s your doing.”

“Let me down, I gotta puke.”

It was a sign of courtesy. His father had never given him a warning before. He sat the old man down on the corner propped against a mailbox and watched him throw up in the street. His father was trembling and gagging so badly that Crease began to feel as if he was doing the same. The awful noises carried on the wind and wafted through chimneys and beneath drafty doors and no one would come outside for a while. In a way, Crease was thankful.

His father slumped back, breathing thickly, an expression of panic crossing his bloated face. His chin was speckled with red foam. His eyes flitted and finally cleared. His gaze was alert but grew more and more desolate as it settled on Crease.

“I did it,” his father said.


“I think I shot her. I probably did.” His father vomited again. “I never admitted it out loud before, even to myself. But I’m telling you the truth. It’s time.”

Crease looked and saw blood in the street.

This was it, his old man was giving his confession, right here on the curb. Crease knew he should run. He wouldn’t want to hear whatever came next. Maybe he hadn’t gone over the rim, maybe he was teetering. If he listened he knew he’d fall.

But even though his hips were half-turned, as if he might make a sprint for the safety of shadows, he just couldn’t take that first step.

“What?” His voice sounded nothing like him, and it made him whirl to face a stranger behind him who wasn’t there. “Tell me again. What did you do?”

His father didn’t have much time left. Crease could see it now, how hard the man had to work to take his next breath. The blood was still coming, leaking from his nostrils and the corners of his mouth now. But he was more focused than he’d been in years. The man finally coming to some kind of an understanding, a reckoning with himself when it was too late to do any good.

“So long ago I hardly remember.”

“It was seven years ago. You remember. Mom had just died. You remember it all. Tell me.”

“I was waiting at the abandoned mill. Waiting to do the trade, the way the kidnappers wanted. But I opened the satchel. I’m sorry, son, I couldn’t help it. Fifteen grand, we could’ve gotten out of this town. It wasn’t much but it was enough to start over . . .” The old man beginning to falter, even now, unable to face his own actions.

Crease was seventeen. The voice—his voice now—was about a thousand years older, full of dust and ash. “Did you kidnap the little girl?”

“No, no, son.”

“Who did?”

“I never found out. I searched, but I never found out.” His father took a phlegm-filled breath, the blood spilling over his lips. “The only reason Edwards knew what happened is because they planned to do the same thing. I gave orders I was to be the only one there, but he was waiting, back in the woods, watching. I took out the bundles of cash and hid them in the mill. Then I sat and waited. From about noon on. Four hours, five, maybe six. It was sundown before I heard someone prowling. Probably Edwards. He must’ve got antsy, waiting like that, screened by the trees. Must’ve thought the switch had already been made and wanted to check. The door opened and I saw someone silhouetted in the sunset. I spotted the gun in his hand. We fired together. Wasn’t until we started yelling that we recognized each other. By the time we straightened ourselves out, the girl was dead.”

I’m being killed here, gutted, and my own father is doing it. “How?”

“She’d been there in the mill, walking around.” The man’s eyes filled with a furious anguish and Crease knew his father had to die now, he could never come back from this admission. “Holding a teddy bear, you see? Mary was holding her teddy bear. They’d let her go.”

“Why would they do that before picking up the satchel?”

“They must’ve found the money I hid. They were watch¬ing. They must’ve been there the whole time. I don’t know. But it was gone, I never even got it. Edwards ran while the girl was dying. I called it in.”

All of this for fifteen grand. It didn’t seem like very much, not even in Hangtree.

“You were drunk. You fell asleep.”

“I don’t know, maybe I did, I suppose I did.”

“Which one of you shot Mary Burke?”

“I don’t know, I honestly don’t know.” His father’s words came slower, weighted by emotion. “She was shot once, and the bullet was . . . was . . .”

Crease already knew. The bullet was unrecognizable. It had gone around and around in her small body, fragmenting. He had to lean against the mailbox to keep from going over. There was blood in the street everywhere he looked.

Crease asked with his dead voice, “Did you shoot the girl on purpose?”

“No, it was an accident. It might not have been me. Maybe it was Edwards.”

“Why didn’t you tell anyone that?”

His father’s breathing grew more ragged, the stink of his death drifting off him. Crease knew it was on him now too, this smell, and it would never go away. The old man kept pawing at Crease’s leg, wanting him to get closer. Crease kneeled beside him, thinking, I should’ve run. Why didn’t I run?

His father clawed for Crease’s hand. “Nobody would’ve believed it. He’d just started out as deputy. Handsome as he is, golden hair, pretty boy. His parents well-to-do. Nobody’d believe my word over his.”

“You were sheriff.”

“Already breaking down, drinking too much. In debt because of your mother’s hospital bills. My word against his. Nobody would’ve believed it, if I had said the truth.”

“They didn’t believe you anyway.”

His father shuddered, moaned, and sobbed for less than a minute before he smiled with red teeth and finally died.


Two days later, at the cemetery, a priest who kept misquoting the Bible spoke for six minutes, immediately asked to be paid, complained about the cold, and strode away in his parka without shaking hands with Crease. No one else was in attendance. Crease had been naive. Stupid, even. He thought at least a few people his father had helped before his downfall might’ve shown up.

Dirtwater, the deaf-mute gravedigger, could only stare at Crease in fear and heartache from the safety of tall hedges fifty yards away, wanting to do the only thing that gave his life any definition, but too scared to grab up his shovel. A welt burnished the side of his face, and his eyes shifted to Sheriff Edwards parked up on the road.

Crease’s father lay there in a pine coffin wearing his only suit and tie. There was no grave dug. There would be no headstone, Crease couldn’t afford one, and the county wouldn’t pay. The man wasn’t a fallen hero. The man was hardly a man at all.

Edwards leaned up against his cruiser gnawing on a straw, the wraparound sunglasses giving him a fashionably hip appearance. He was alone and he was smirking like there were flashbulbs going off around him. Crease looked away, then looked, and finally walked over. He thought, No matter what happens, it’ll be worth it so long as I see his blood.

The voice that wasn’t his own was still with him, and he figured he was going to have to get used to it. There was no fire in it even though he wanted Edwards to appreciate his hatred. But the voice remained calm and perfectly level. “You didn’t have to attack Dirtwater. He never hurt anyone.”

“He chose his lot.”

“How so?”

“He was saying kind things about your father and poor things about me.”

“He’s a mute.”

“He said it with his eyes.”

Edwards stood there, aware of how good he looked. His golden hair in the breeze, the light hitting him just right. Cocking his smile at the perfect angle, with his muscular shoulders shrugged so high that his brown deputy’s shirt was drawn tightly over his muscular chest. Crease wondered why a man so graced would willfully become so callous.

“Your father was rotten through and through, that’s the truth. You know it. Let me tell you something else. He killed that girl and should’ve been put in prison for it. He disappeared inside a whiskey bottle because he had to choke down his guilt and shame.”

“He started drinking when my mother grew ill,” Crease said. The voice betrayed no emotion, no humanity. “That’s why he jumped the rails.”

“You’re not stupid, you know the truth. He ruined your life. You’re glad he’s dead.”

Crease wouldn’t be able to hit him. He would try and fail and Edwards would unleash a torrent of swift blows that would bring Crease to his knees. He saw it all clearly in his mind long before he threw a punch, realizing it wasn’t a desperate act, or even a scornful one, so much as it was a choice between doing something and doing nothing.

His fist struck bone.

Edwards cried out with a loud yawp as blood gushed from his mouth. His bottom lip was torn and a jagged piece of broken tooth had speared his cheek. The sunglasses went flying. There were those hated blue eyes. How fulfilling to see them once more. Crease struck again, shocked by the speed of his own hands, and felt Edwards’ nose snap. He knew the beautiful sheriff would never be beautiful from this day on.

He took another swing and Edwards yanked loose his billy club, rammed it into Crease’s stomach and chopped him over the left ear. Crease never passed out, no matter how many times he was pummeled and kicked.

They threw him in a cell and took turns beating him for three days. It wasn’t so bad. They never booked him, never fingerprinted him. On the fourth day they tossed him in the back of the cruiser and drove him halfway home, then shoved him out into the street.

When he got to the house he found his backpack and his father’s suitcase already packed at the curb. They’d gotten somebody who knew him pretty well to do it. His favorite clothes were inside, along with a couple of important personal belongings, including his father’s badge. Maybe it had been Rebecca Fortlow, who he’d been dating on and off the past year despite her family’s protests. Someone who liked him but wouldn’t shed more than two tears at his leaving. Yeah, probably Reb.

Most of the furniture had been taken. He saw evidence of the neighbors’ culling across the lawn: shredded clothing, flung papers, shattered dishes. What one person didn’t want was left for the rest to pick through.