A novel in progress by John Barnes. Roughly 2000 word chunks posted every Tuesday. Aggregated into chapters now and then for the convenience of people joining later. Since it's a blog, start reading with the oldest posts first.
Genre is hardboiled mystery,language and subject matter not kid-suitable.
The Tree Trunk Grill was not some diner they fixed
up to be all nostalgic and shit. It was your basic college dump, with a worn
out counter, low enough to have regular chairs at it, and booths around the
outside that were about half naugahyde and half duct tape.
"Tiny Tim" Brady, the old fat guy that
ran it, was this big‑ass sports fan. Also a very enthusiastic one. But only for
the sports and teams he approved of: football and basketball, DU Pioneers, CU,
and the Denver pro teams. A minor‑sport tiny‑college player like me was
normally invisible to him, except when he felt like being a jerk to an ex‑con,
or trying to mack on a girl who was a third of his age and half his weight.
Unfortunately he felt like doing both tonight.
He led off by saying Stacy could sit up front by
him at the counter, and asking her to stay between me and the cash register.
Stacy's big toothy smile could have flash‑frozen
helium. "Not tonight, Tiny, we'll need a booth for some intelligent conversation." He hated being called
"Tiny," and would only put up with it from football players and
On our way back to a corner table, I recognized a
beautiful old long red leather coat at the counter. "Hey, Sergeant
Grouillon turned around, grinning, and said,
"Hey." He was a very dark‑skinned black man, taller than me and in
body‑builder shape, maybe fifty years old, but his face had so many wrinkles
and folds it looked like he bought it used and it didn't quite fit. Like
always, he was in a perfectly fitting masterpiece of a three‑piece suit, and
could have shaved looking into his shoes – though I'd never seen him in need of
a shave. "I'm off duty and I hope never to have to talk to you again when
I'm on duty, Hal. You can call me Sid."
"Sid, then. Hey, this is Stacy Hilburn. Stacy,
this is Detective Sergeant Sidney Grouillon. He's the guy who put me in prison and the guy who got me out."
"I just have trouble making up my mind,"
Grouillon said. "So, Hal, how's it going? Still doing that silly Japanese
wrestling in pajamas?"
"Still am. First tournament's in a couple
weeks. I can send you an email for some free tickets."
Grouillon beamed. "So, if I like boxing, am I
gonna like this?"
"You might. Especially since it's all weight
classes and half of us are girls. I still have your email, Ser‑uh, Sid. I'll
zap you the thing for getting the free tickets."
I had just thought about asking him what brought
him to this end of town when he gestured at his book. "I'm taking some
courses at Iliff."
"Thinking of becoming a minister or
"Not sure. It's just I'm hitting that age
where a guy starts to think he might die someday, and going to a strip club
after work with a bunch of other cops doesn't seem to address the old mortality
thing the way it used to."
"You never did that."
"How would you know, Hal? You only ever saw me
"Where I heard about your wife Marilyn. Who
would kill you."
"Well, yeah." He smiled at Stacy.
"Hal and I both have a lot of trouble fooling each other. But he's a
better guy than he looks like. Really."
She laughed and said that the only person in the
world who didn't know that was me; he agreed with her, and we all shook hands
like old friends. He went back to spooning up his big bowl of chili and hi‑liting
his copy of A Critical and Exegetical Commentary
on the Book of Psalms.
Stacy and me sat down at a booth in the corner and
ordered massive greaseburgers with plastic cheese and a lot of salady glop on
top, a huge basket of fries to split, and a pot of coffee for the table. We
shoved all that crap down like mad cannibals, got the coffee pot refilled, and
settled back to talk while we got in enough caffeine to head off the food coma.
"You're going to be up all night with as much coffee as you're putting
down," Stacy observed. "How late is your late shift?"
"Hard to predict but late. It's a Risk Club night."
"One of Breit's things."
"All right, now who's Breit?"
"John Breit. Nasty John. The owner of Nasty
John's, I mean. He is named
John and he's definitely nasty.
Wednesday nights, him and Coach Park and Dr. Lang – and some others you
wouldn't know," I said, a little awkwardly because I was remembering I
wasn't supposed to ever say anything about the existence of Backdoor Man,
"they get together and play a big game of Risk in the back private party
room, and they need a discreet waiter, I guess, so Dr. Lang can top up his
coffee with Meyers dark rum, and Breit can say all kinds of politically
incorrect stuff, and they can all be a special super secret club with NO GURLZ
on the clubhouse door. "
"So you're their private waiter?"
"Yep, and I have to get there before Coach
Park does, because he likes to start on time and I have to be all set up by the
time he gets there. He lets me out of practice ten minutes earlier than usual,
then I run over to Nasty John's and get things going. Anyway, I'll be up till
midnight at best, maybe four at worst, and that's why I'm scarfing so much coffee. What's your excuse?"
"All‑nighter, or almost an all‑nighter. "
Just shitting her, I waggled a finger at her and
said, "Dangers of procrastination, young lady."
She looked pissed. She pulled out one of those little calendar
notebooks and held it out, flipping through pages. They were covered, in ball point and pencil and like a dozen colors
of flairs, going way back into the summer. Either the girl was crazy busy or
she was putting all her time into faking up her Day‑Timer.
"I'm an asshole," I said.
She shrugged. "It's okay. I just get tired of
how people assume that if a student is on short time and sleep it's because
"I'm sorry. Really."
She shrugged again, a little one‑shoulder motion
with her mouth screwed up funny, and said, "Sorry, you just caught some
built‑up anger. I get that shit from so many people, why I bother with hard crap
since I'm rich."
"But you're not," I said.
"My mom and stepdad're rich and I grew up rich." She was looking at her coffee cup like
it was a crystal ball. "So look, the thing I wanted to talk to you about,
you're really the only person I know I can talk to about it, and – she turned
and looked. "All right, your policeman friend is gone."
"You've got some serious shit to talk
"Well, it wouldn't've been cool with him
here." She seemed to think for a moment. "I'm gonna take the pot up
and get us fresh coffee, and then I'll tell you all about it. Really. You stay
"I'm not going anywhere."
She went up to get the table pot refilled, and I
thought about how the most awkward conversations in the world are sometimes the
easiest, because there's nothing to say except the most obvious shit. It had
been that way when I first met Grouillon.
Denver Jail is such a nasty armpit of a hole that
later on when I went to real prison at Cañon City it was a relief. I was stuck
in the jail because Momster sure didn't have money for bail, the cash from my
desk drawer was still being held as evidence in case they decided to send me
away for an extra twenty years, and even if I'd had money, I couldn't see
paying a bondsman. So I just slept and read, with visits from Leigh whenever
she could catch a bus from Englewood. She'd talk nonstop and I'd listen; you'd
be amazed how interesting it can be, what goes on in seventh grade.
Then five days before sentencing, my public
defender lawyer, who hadn't talked to me since the trial, had me brought to a
conference room to tell me that I could talk to a cop about some kind of deal,
and she'd vouch he'd keep his word if I kept mine. I said I'd talk to him,
maybe just because I was bored.
So I met Detective Sergeant Sidney Grouillon. His
eyes were big and soft‑looking but his upper lip had a scar I didn't want to
ask about. For a cop his suit was about two grades too good, and his shoes were
better. He had about the most perfect pencil mustache I've ever seen, even
across that scar. The guy was seriously groomed.
He introduced himself, gave me a big paper cup of
coffee from his own thermos – way too strong but fresh and hot, and looked
straight at me. "You know a guy like me thinks a guy like you is a piece
of shit. Question is, what kind of a piece of shit do you want to be, Hal? You
know what I mean by that?"
"No, sir, I don't."
"Well, you don't have many options. You're
stuck being a piece of shit for a while. But there's different kinds you can
be. One kind you can be, you can be the wildass dumb kid that got some nice
Asian people's precious baby daughter into drugs and then killed, and go away
for a few years to Cañon City, and come back and try to be a bonafide thug,
instead of a pretend one, till you go down for good.
"Another kind of piece of shit, more
respectable, is when you get out you'll bag groceries and go to night school,
find yourself a woman that'll take a loser for a husband.
"Or you can be the third kind."
I'd been in school all my life; I knew a cue line
when I heard one. "What's the other kind?"
"You can be a piece of rat shit. Snitch on all
the assholes you know anything about. Testify when I need you to."
"And then what happens?" I asked.
"Well, you will be all out of friends." He waited. When I
didn't react, he added, "And you might have to be all out of Denver, depending on who you give
me, how their friends feel about it, and like that. You know better than me.
But you can be out of the pen a lot sooner, and you do have some people – I
don't know why, and they are not people I like much, but they're not crooks as
far as I know – people that want to give you a fresh start when you get out. So
here's the deal I got for you: testify, go in, behave perfect, nineteen months
to parole. And your mystery friends say there will be something or other
waiting for you when you get out."
So I thought for about one nanosecond. Maybe less.
I'd rather be a piece of shit with something than a piece of shit with nothing.
I told Grouillon everything I knew, came to eight
trials to testify, heard about snitches get stitches all the time, but they didn't let other prisoners
get near me unwatched, and I was big, young, and strong, so it was all talk. I
did all the perfect‑prisoner stuff for nineteen months and now here I was.
Stacy came back with the fresh pot of coffee.
"I was just going to ask you about Neil Restock. He's hanging around my
roommate Tammy—trial boyfriend or a convenient hookup, I'm not sure which.
There's something he can do for me, and I have to decide whether I want him to.
What do you know about him?"
I just told the truth. "Neil's one of those
burb‑wiggas who went through high school pretending to be gangsta, then hung
around a half‑ass college, fucking chicks that were so dumb they not only
wanted to date a gangsta, they fell for his act. Another dorm‑and‑club dealer
like me. I only saw him a couple times in Cañon City. Is he still a fake
gangsta or did he get Jesus?"
She giggled. "No Jesus. Neil is definitely not into Jesus. And there is something he can help me out with – "
"If you want to buy drugs I can find you a
"That's the only thing I know that Neil can be
any help with."
She reached out and took my hand. "You're mad
because if someone is going to do something for me, you want it to be you,
I don't know where I found the nerve to look right
in her eyes. "Yes."
It was worth it; she got this great smile.
"Well, stop fretting. This has to do with some contacts he has. I got
involved in some real messed up shit myself, years ago, stuff I could have gone
to jail for. It's not quite over but if I can pay the right person – through a
cutout – then it could all be
done with. And Neil knows the right person. Can he keep his mouth shut?"
"I would keep any secret I had to," I
said, "and nothing you told me could make me stop being your friend. And I'm a meaner bastard than Neil, they wouldn't fuck
with me like they might with him."
Stacy looked exasperated. Her hands squeezed mine
hard. "Hal, this has nothing to do with friendship, or courage, or skills,
because if it did I swear, I'd totally've come to you in the first place. I
don't need to buy something. I
need to buy someone, someone I
don't know who it is, and Neil can put me in touch with the person I need to
talk to. So I'm asking – can he keep his mouth shut?"
I looked up at the Tree Trunk's battered and
stained acoustic tile ceiling and thought out loud. "When I knew Neil, we
were both fucked up on something or other all the time. So you're getting my
idea of the dude two years later through, like, a chemical cloud, , but, well—he didn't rat out anyone before. I did. With Neil,
I'd be more worried that he might brag on things and blab your story to some
little megan‑from‑the‑burbs when he's trying to get into her pants. What's he like
"Always a story, but never a story he'd get
busted on, or anyone else would, and he totally wants into her pants—straight
guys always do."
"Then maybe you can trust him."
She was nodding with that beautiful serious look,
and I thought, okay, if angels don't look like Stacy Hilburn, I am not going
to heaven, not even with a signing bonus. "That's what I needed to know, Hal. Are you mad at me?"
"No. Walk with me, it's close to time for
"Oh, shit, it is for me too. Is your class in Chivington?"
paid and left; Brady had a couple DU basketball players to fawn on so he was
busy and just let me have a no‑hassle exit. Or maybe he was finally getting
smart enough to be afraid of Stacy.