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Purgatory Chasm (Conway Sax Series #1)

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Overview

“Tander Phigg was an asshole, but he was also a Barnburner. Barnburners saved my life. I help them when I can. No exceptions.”

The job seems simple. Conway Sax, a no-nonsense auto mechanic with a knack for solving difficult problems, has never liked obnoxious blowhard Tander Phigg. But a promise is a promise. Tander’s a Barnburner, a member of the unique Alcoholics Anonymous group that rescued Conway, and when a Barnburner has a problem, Conway takes care of it.  Besides, all Tander wants is to get back...

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Purgatory Chasm (Conway Sax Series #1)

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Overview

“Tander Phigg was an asshole, but he was also a Barnburner. Barnburners saved my life. I help them when I can. No exceptions.”

The job seems simple. Conway Sax, a no-nonsense auto mechanic with a knack for solving difficult problems, has never liked obnoxious blowhard Tander Phigg. But a promise is a promise. Tander’s a Barnburner, a member of the unique Alcoholics Anonymous group that rescued Conway, and when a Barnburner has a problem, Conway takes care of it.  Besides, all Tander wants is to get back his baby, a vintage Mercedes that’s been in a shady auto shop far too long.

But Conway soon discovers there's much more to the problem than Tander first let on – especially when Tander turns up dead. Conway was the last person seen with the victim, and on top of that, he has a record, making him the cops’ top suspect. He must catch the killer to clear himself, but beyond that, he’s a man who honors his promises, even when the guy he made them to is dead.

In the tradition of Robert B. Parker and Dennis Lehane, Steve Ulfelder’s crackling debut mystery features a gritty, razor-sharp new voice in crime fiction. Conway Sax isn’t a hired gun or a wise-cracking urbanite. He’s just a mechanic trying to make his way, a blue-collar guy whose ideas about family and loyalty are as deeply held as they are strong. He’ll break your heart if you’re not careful.

Advance Praise for Purgatory Chasm:

"Genuine characters and intense action—a serious crime novel with serious edge." – Patrick Lee, New York Times bestselling author of The Breach

Purgatory Chasm grabs you at the gate and doesn’t let go, careening through a top-notch whodunit to an ending you don’t see coming. A debut this good makes you wonder what Ulfelder’s holding back for the next race.” –Sophie Littlefield, Edgar Award-nominated author of A Bad Day for Sorry

"Holds a hot, ominous idle just until Ulfelder engages gears and hits the gas, pinning you back against the seat, hopeless to leave before the end of the ride. One of those rare debuts that leaves you immediately eager to see what is next." —Michael Koryta, award-winning author of The Silent Hour and The Cypress House

“Ulfelder’s voice makes the tale as powerful and true as rocketing down the back straight at Martinsville Speedway. He’s given us living proof that scars are sometimes the only legacy we can pass down from one generation to the next.” — Louise Ure, Shamus Award winning author of Liar’s Anonymous

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ulfelder couples precise, evocative prose with an original private investigator in his compelling hard-boiled debut. Conway Sax, a recovering alcoholic, ex-con, and car mechanic who lives in Massachusetts, fulfills his moral obligations to the Barnburners, the AA group that got him clean and sober, by doing odd jobs for them. Tander Phigg, a Barnburner whose 1980 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL Sax once worked on, persuades him to help retrieve the classic car—and the ,500 deposit—from Das Motorenwerk, a garage in New Hampshire that's had the vehicle for 18 months and done nothing. When Sax visits the garage, someone he doesn't see coldcocks him. The assault heightens Sax's suspicions about Das Motorenwerk, and his later discovery of a dead body confirms them. Ulfelder smoothly navigates the many plot twists, and effortlessly introduces wrinkles in his protagonist's backstory that enhance the character. Fans of Michael Koryta's PI crime novels will find a lot to like. (May)
Library Journal
Conway Sax is a former race car driver who lost everything because of his alcohol addiction. After a stint in jail and a newfound sense of belonging with his Alcoholics Anonymous group, he is finally getting his life back in order. When one of his AA associates asks for his help, he is unable to refuse despite his dislike for the man. What starts off as a simple negotiation evolves into a murder investigation and the unraveling of deadly family secrets. Conway's own past comes into play as his destitute father reappears in his life. VERDICT This outstanding debut by a former journalist and racing enthusiast is gritty and fast-paced, with an intriguing plot and believable characters. Ulfelder has introduced a solid new protagonist, and the many race car anecdotes add to the novel's allure. It will appeal strongly to readers of Loren D. Estleman and Ross MacDonald and those who enjoy hard-boiled detective mysteries.—Amy Nolan, St. Joseph P.L., MI
Kirkus Reviews

Fathers and sons, American style.

Conway Sax once drove race cars. He drove them fast enough to garner attention, well enough to view the NASCAR circuit as a realistic career choice. But that was before he had to admit he was an all-too-realistic drunk. What happened? There's no easy answer, but even someone as little given to introspection as Conway understands that a corrosive father-son relationship augurs negative consequences. And Conway's was a doozy. Enter the Barnburners, a serious AA offshoot for serious alcoholics. Because he credits them with saving his life, Conway willingly becomes the Barnburners' go-to guy. His reputation for heavy lifting makes it natural for Barnburner Tander Phigg to call on him in his hour of need. Conway doesn't like Tander or care much for the spurious feel of Tander's deal, glossed over though it is. But saintly or shiftless, a Barnburner's a Barnburner. So Conway saddles up, begins asking the relevant questions and is soon knee-deep in murder, mayhem and the kind of bad-seed malevolence that heedlessness makes doubly dangerous—all complicated by a father-son relationship almost as dysfunctional as his own.

The protagonist is so strong, engaging and fully realized that he dwarfs the surrounding cast. Still, a promising debut.

From the Publisher
Praise for Purgatory Chasm:

*** Nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Mystery 2012 ***

*Winner of the Reviewer’s Choice Award from RT BookReviews for Best First Mystery of 2011

“Conway Sax is a has-been racing driver, an ace auto mechanic, a recovering alcoholic and a refreshing new character solving hardcore crimes….Non-racing and non-car fans will appreciate [Ulfelder's] hero as well as his crisp plotting, hard-boiled style and realistic dialogue. In his debut novel, Ulfelder deftly solves a mystery, and explores how family ties are established and what they mean.” –Associated Press

“The redemption that every flawed person tries to find in life enhances the complex plot that percolates in former journalist Steve Ulfelder's exciting mystery fiction debut. And Purgatory Chasm is certainly loaded with myriad flawed characters and their avenues to redemption, starting with Conway Sax… Purgatory Chasm moves at a brisk clip as Ulfelder smoothly steers his plot from one hairpin twist to the next. Ulfelder… adds just enough automobiles lore to spice Purgatory Chasm, but not overwhelm it. Ulfelder brings a gritty, uncompromising view to his hard-boiled debut. At the same time, the author makes Conway both tough and vulnerable, a man who has made too many mistakes in his life and, unfortunately, will make even more. Purgatory Chasm is a superb beginning for an author who shows much promise.” –South Florida Sun-Sentinel

“Ulfelder's debut combines elements of the thriller with tales of tangled families. Violence runs through the novel, but Ulfelder tempers it with compassion — and evocative prose. Purgatory Chasm may be hardboiled, but it's heart-wrenching, too.” –Richmond Times-Dispatch

“A gritty razor sharp new voice in crime fiction.” –The Keene Sentinel

“Ulfelder couples precise, evocative prose with an original private investigator in his compelling hard-boiled debut…. Ulfelder smoothly navigates the many plot twists, and effortlessly introduces wrinkles in his protagonist's backstory that enhance the character. Fans of Michael Koryta's PI crime novels will find a lot to like.” –Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Conway is one of those tough but tender, emotionally damaged protagonists that calls out to certain mystery readers.... Ulfelder’s first novel gets a thumbs up." —Booklist

“A promising debut… with one of the funniest, punchiest, most memorable — and for this paper unprintable — first sentences in recent murder mysteries.” –MetroWest Daily News

Purgatory Chasm is Ulfelder’s first novel, but he clearly has the ability to get inside the minds of his multi-faceted characters and bring out their best and worst. His casual style moves the reader along at a rapid pace that fits perfectly with the theme of automobiles and racing. Even though I am not an auto racing enthusiast and can’t even change a tire, I found myself caught up in the story. Ulfelder has created Sax as a flawed human being with a sense of integrity and honor. I look forward to more of his novels.” —Suspense Magazine

“Ulfelder’s debut grabs you from its wryly hilarious opening line and keeps going full throttle till the finale.  His characters are deep and realistically rendered – sometimes painfully so – and the broken family dynamics are right on the money.  Ulfelder writes so well that even non-NASCAR fanatics will get something out of the car talk and racing scenes.  Can’t wait for book two!” – RT Book Reviews, Top pick, 4 ½ stars

“This outstanding debut by a former journalist and racing enthusiast is gritty and fast-paced, with an intriguing plot and believable characters. Ulfelder has introduced a solid new protagonist, and the many race car anecdotes add to the novel’s allure. It will appeal strongly to readers of Loren D. Estleman and Ross MacDonald and those who enjoy hard-boiled detective mysteries.” –Library Journal, starred review

“Fathers and sons, American style…. The protagonist is… strong, engaging and fully realized… A promising debut.” —Kirkus

“If Chuck Norris had a problem, he’d call Conway Sax.” —bestdamncreativewritingblog.com

Purgatory Chasm is one of those books I had a hard time putting down. It grabbed me with the first line and I had to keep reading to find out what kind of trouble Conway was going to get into next. And there was plenty of trouble. There were loads of twists and turns and an ending I didn’t see coming. I thought about it long after I finished the book. Every character was well-drawn and compelling. Conway is a guy you just have to root for. His friend, Randall—an Iraq war veteran with a prosthetic leg—is Conway’s conscience and tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. Charlene is Conway’s on-and-off girlfriend. She’s been disappointed by him several times, but somehow their relationship survives. I especially liked the relationship between Charlene’s daughter and Conway. Even minor characters who only make one-time appearances are interesting. If you like P.I. novels with lots of action, compelling characters, and an ending that will blow you away, Purgatory Chasm is definitely a book you need to pick up.” — workingstiffs.blogspot.com

 

"Sax is a very likable character, even if he feels obligated to sometimes do questionable things for the Barnburners to repay them for saving his life... Ulfelder writes some devastating scenes, made more so because of things that aren’t said. We hurt more for Sax because he’s not openly sentimental; we fill in the blanks when he doesn’t show us his feelings. But show Ulfelder does, instead of telling, and for that I’m glad I came along for the ride." —popculturenerd.com

 

"Genuine characters and intense action—a serious crime novel with serious edge." – Patrick Lee, New York Times bestselling author of The Breach

 

“The story is suspenseful and original, the characters are well-drawn, and the dialogue crackles.  The fact is, Steve Ulfelder can really write, and Purgatory Chasm is a remarkably strong debut. I look forward to his next book.” – Bruce DeSilva, Edgar Award-winning author of Rogue Island

Purgatory Chasm grabs you at the gate and doesn’t let go, careening through a top-notch whodunit to an ending you don’t see coming. A debut this good makes you wonder what Ulfelder’s holding back for the next race.” –Sophie Littlefield, Edgar Award-nominated author of A Bad Day for Sorry

"Holds a hot, ominous idle just until Ulfelder engages gears and hits the gas, pinning you back against the seat, hopeless to leave before the end of the ride. One of those rare debuts that leaves you immediately eager to see what is next." —Michael Koryta, award-winning author of The Silent Hour and The Cypress House

“A thrilling new talent in crime fiction, Steve Ulfelder has written a debut that crackles with hard-boiled wit and white-knuckled action.  Conway Sax will stay with you long after the final page releases you from its grip.” –Norb Vonnegut, author of The Gods of Greenwich

“Ulfelder’s voice makes the tale as powerful and true as rocketing down the back straight at Martinsville Speedway. He’s given us living proof that scars are sometimes the only legacy we can pass down from one generation to the next.” — Louise Ure, Shamus Award winning author of Liar’s Anonymous

“A highly enjoyable journey of one man’s quest to hold his end of the bargain – with the help of a few friends. The narrative is slick and Purgatory Chasm is a very quick read, one thing it certainly did was hold my attention effortlessly throughout.” –milorambles.com

“If you enjoy novels about bad boy anti-heroes,   Purgatory Chasm  is well-written,  richly plotted and a lot of fun.   Recommended.” –Libdrone.info

Purgatory Chasm is a hardboiled, fast-paced novel. It’s an action-packed, solid debut, worthy of an Edgar nomination. Steve Ulfelder deserves kudos for the story. Most of all, he deserves kudos for the creation of Conway Sax, a memorable character.” —lesasbookcritiques.blogspot.com

“While searching Tander’s past for motives for his murder, Conway uncovers uncomfortable secrets and betrayals — hidden truths that force him to reexamine the turbulent relationship with his own father. This powerful debut thriller featuring a unique protagonist is a finalist for the 2012 Anthony and Edgar Awards for Best First Novel.” –stopyourekillingme.com

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312672928
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 5/10/2011
  • Series: Conway Sax Series , #1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Steve Ulfelder

Steve Ulfelder is an amateur race driver and co-owner of Flatout Motorsports, a company that builds race cars. He was a business and technology journalist for 20 years.  In addition to trade and automotive magazines, he wrote for the Boston Globe, Boston magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many others. Purgatory Chasm is his first novel.  Visit Steve online at www.ulfelder.com.

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

 

There are drunken assholes, and there are assholes who are drunks.

Take a drunken asshole and stick him in AA five or ten years, maybe you come out with a decent guy.

Now take an asshole who’s a drunk. Put him in AA as long as you like. Send him to a thousand meetings a year, have him join the Peace Corps for good measure. What you come out with is a sober asshole.

Tander Phigg was a sober asshole.

I was thinking this while he bought me lunch at a diner in Rourke, New Hampshire, just across the Massachusetts border. From the outside, it looked like one of those small-town diners people wish were still around—plate-glass windows, fifties-style brushed-aluminum letters that spelled DOT’S PLACE, turquoise tiles surrounding the door.

But once you got inside you stopped pining. It smelled and felt like fifty years’ worth of grease had coated the floor, the walls, the vinyl stools, even the black-and-white pictures of locals and the deer they’d killed. The food was bad, too.

Sitting across from me in a booth, Tander Phigg gave me an eyeful of some of it while he chewed—an egg-salad sandwich. He was pushing seventy-five and getting heavy. His belly pressed Formica through a yellow polo shirt with the collar flipped up. He had a red nose that twenty-plus years of sobriety couldn’t get rid of, snow-white hair that was too long for a man his age. He’d always worn it that way. You got the feeling somebody once told him he had a great head of hair, and he believed them.

There were other things: The hair was a little too greasy, and Phigg’s eyes had gone greedy when he looked at the menu, and there was a smell to him he hadn’t quite masked with Old Spice.

Tander Phigg was desperate.

I’d never liked him, hadn’t wanted to drive an hour to meet him. But I shut up and ate my burger and listened anyway.

Tander Phigg was an asshole, but he was also a Barnburner. Barnburners saved my life. I help them when I can. No exceptions.

“So what do you think?” Phigg said. “You going to let these crooks hold your baby hostage?”

My baby?”

“Hey, you were always talking about how she was ahead of her time, all the technology packed inside her.”

“Here’s what I liked about that car,” I said. “The technology you’re bragging on was always screwed up. It kept me busy, made me money.” I hit the it extra hard. I hate when people talk about cars like they’re women or babies. A street car’s a tool. A race car’s a weapon. When they break, I fix them. There’s not much more to it.

Phigg’s baby, his her, was a 1980 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9. Nice car, ahead of its time. It had the first antilock braking system I ever saw, a suspension you could adjust from the driver’s seat, and a bunch of other fancy features.

But the fancy stuff broke—all the time. Those 450SELs made techs like me a lot of dough, even when they were brand new. And by ’99, when Phigg bought one with 140,000 miles on the clock, it was an ass-dragging smoker. I went through each system at least once. I’d been happy to do it as long as his checks cleared.

Which they didn’t always anymore, according to the Barnburner grapevine.

“I had to fix her,” Phigg said. “With a car like that, a classic, I didn’t see myself as the owner. I was more of a caretaker.”

I rolled my eyes, wiped my mouth, dropped my napkin on the plate.

Phigg’s eyes darted to the plate. He made a lightning grab for three fries, chewed. “How about it?”

Hell. He was a Barnburner. “How long they had it?” I said.

“Going on eighteen months, for chrissake.”

That did seem like a long time, unless there was something else Phigg wasn’t telling me. “How far have they gotten with the work?”

“I went by last week. They’ve done nothing, Conway. They parked her by a back wall and threw a tarp over her.”

“Why’d they say it’s taking so long?”

“Blah blah this, blah blah that, parts from Germany, other customers ahead of me.”

“That’s bullshit,” I said. “They ought to’ve taken it apart by now, put it on a rotisserie. Or given you a good reason why not.”

“So you’ll take a look?”

“Where’s the shop?”

“Two blocks back.”

“On Mechanic Street,” I said.

“How’d you know?”

“Every town has one.”

The waitress came by, coffeepot poised. I flat-handed a no-thanks. Phigg ignored her until she left, then leaned in. “I want my car and my money back,” he said. “I can drive it around a few more years before I fix the rust. Hell, maybe I’ll sell it as is.”

“What money back?”

His face went the same color as his nose. “They wanted some dough to get started.”

“That was stupid and you know it,” I said. “How much?”

“The way the guy explained it, it’s like when a contractor gets money up front.”

“How much?”

“Thirty-five hundred.” Phigg fingered his yellow collar, ran the back of a hand across his mouth.

I took a breath, let it out. “Stupid.”

“You’ll help me?”

“I’ll talk to them. Not today, though. Busy.”

He smiled, rapped the table twice, reached to touch my forearm.

I pulled it back.

He wrote the name of the shop and his phone number and address on a corner of his paper place mat, tore it off, handed it to me, said thanks, split. He was in a hurry to get out the door before the waitress made it over with the check.

Asshole.

*   *   *

I wanted a peek at the shop before I headed home. I hadn’t lied to Phigg: Every town does have a Mechanic Street, and they’re all the same. They run perpendicular to the main drag in whatever part of town was lousy when the town was born. More often than not they dead-end at railroad tracks, as this street did. Before I U-turned at the tracks, I passed an off-brand transmission shop, a generic diesel station with a propane-refill cage, and a place called Santo’s Custom Interior where a Mexican and a pit bull chained to the Mexican’s chair stared at me.

I cruised past the place that was ripping off Phigg. It had been high-end once. The building was a former barn, thirty feet across and deep. It had two roll-up doors and a simple sign: DAS MOTORENWERK.

One of the roll-up doors was open. I saw a two-post lift with an Audi A4 up high, its engine oil draining into a long funnel stuck in a drum.

I’m a grease monkey myself—I’ve worked at dealerships, run a shop of my own, even been part of the NASCAR traveling circus—so I could see Das Motorenwerk wasn’t breaking any records. For starters, there was no little group of customer cars outside. One lousy oil change was the day’s workload.

The Dumpster at the side of the barn was overflowing, which meant the shop had saved a few bucks by switching from an every-two-weeks Dumpster service to monthly. Next to the Dumpster stood a triple stack of used tires with weeds growing through. It costs money to get rid of tires, and God help you if you’re caught sneaking them into the Dumpster.

I put my F-150 in reverse, backed to the upholstery shop. As I neared, the pit bull went crazy. Without looking at the dog, the Mexican hit its nose with a closed fist. The dog shut up.

I leaned, rolled down the passenger window. “I’m a tech looking for work,” I said. “Heard Motorenwerk was a good outfit, but the shop looks pretty tired. Know anything about it?”

He looked at me fifteen seconds and said, “Where the fuck you hear that?”

I’d wanted him to ask. Pretended to hesitate. “The guy who told me, he’s been away awhile.”

The Mexican smiled, rose, hitched his khakis, came to my window. The pit bull whined. Up close the Mexican looked older. Had a tear tattooed at the outside corner and just below one eye. He said, “State time?”

Another fake pause. “Walpole.”

“You on paper?”

“Eleven months to go,” I said. “How about the shop? They any good?”

“Used to be. Now…” He fluttered a hand, stopped in mid-flutter, narrowed his eyes. “State time down in Mass. Mass. license plate. So why you looking for work up here?”

“I live in Townsend, ten minutes away, so my PO said I can work in New Hampshire.” I took off before he could ask more questions. Or unchain the pit bull.

*   *   *

I’d lied. I didn’t live in Townsend. Lived in Framingham, Massachusetts. Or Shrewsbury, a couple towns west. Or both. I wasn’t sure, and that was a problem.

I headed for Framingham, thought about Tander Phigg while I drove.

He’d been sober forever, was already a Barnburner old-timer when I showed up ten-plus years ago. I’d looked up to him for a while, the way new fish always look up to old-timers. Hell, he’d even been my sponsor for six months.

But the more I hung around, the less I liked him. The stories he told at AA meetings changed as years passed. What had been arguments became bar fights. What had been funny DUI stories that ended with Phigg in the drunk tank became COPS-style megachases, half the cruisers in Worcester County hound-dogging Phigg.

Like that.

As I exited Route 495 I set aside my dislike and focused on the interesting development: Tander Phigg smelled broke. Back when I’d worked on his Mercedes, he was a cost-no-object guy—and happy to tell you about it. He’d moved to New Hampshire to escape Taxachusetts and build his timber-frame dream house on a river. For a while, he’d bored us all half to death with artist’s renderings and blueprints.

Now he was a man who seemed itchy to get thirty-five hundred bucks out of a car-repair place. And as I thought about it, I realized it’d been a long time since he’d bragged about his big house at the Barnburner meeting-after-the-meeting.

*   *   *

I sobered up a long time ago. I’ll never know why: People talk about hitting bottom, but what’s the bottom? I’d crashed through a dozen.

Whatever the reason, I woke up one day in the dry-out wing of a Brockton, Massachusetts, VA hospital—a clerk’s mistake; I’m not a veteran—and grabbed the tired mattress with both hands and white-knuckled my way through the worst of the DTs. When they figured out I shouldn’t be in the VA hospital and bounced me, I wound up in Framingham. Salvation Army cot, day-labor gigs, food-pantry handouts.

What you have to learn for yourself is that each AA meeting has its own character. Some groups—in Framingham, a town full of halfway houses and methadone clinics, a lot of groups—go through the motions so attendees can get their parole cards signed. Others wheeze along for the benefit of a half dozen old-timers. Some groups give you the hairy eyeball if you bring up drugs. Some are cliquey as hell. All you can do is stick with it, try meetings until you find the right fit.

It took me three months. My knees were bruised from praying. My knuckles were death-grip white. I was tipping, getting set to backslide, feeling ashamed of the next inevitable relapse, when I hitched a ride to a Barnburner meeting.

As soon as I stepped into the basement at Saint Anne’s, everything changed. I knew I was in the right place. Didn’t know how I knew—still don’t—but I knew.

Three people shook my hand. A biker with a cobweb tattooed on his neck took one look at me, knew I didn’t have a buck for a raffle ticket, and gave me one on the house. When I made my way to the coffee table and started throwing back Dunkin’ Munchkins like they were dinner (they were; it was February, a slow month for day labor), people pretended not to notice, and an old-timer who turned out to be Mary Giarusso disappeared into a back room and came out with another box.

As soon as I sat on a folding chair, I figured out the Barnburners’ core. The key players sat at the left front, kitty-corner, where they could see the speaker while keeping an eye on the rest of the room. Charlene wasn’t there yet—she came along later—but most of them were. Mary Giarusso took a seat. Butch Feeley, who was seventy then and beefy, sat near the center like the group’s Godfather (he was), arms folded, legs stretched, ankles crossed, a lieutenant whispering in each ear. One of the lieutenants was Chester Bagley, who didn’t yet wear a toupee but did have a horrendous comb-over. The other was a mean-looking South American dude—Colombian, I found out later—who wouldn’t even speak to you until you were sober a year.

Tander Phigg was in that front corner, of course. Hair already white, vinyl jacket with a Porsche logo, Rolex Daytona slopping around on his wrist. He was telling a Commander McBragg story to a shaved-head black guy who looked like he wished he’d picked a different seat.

There they sat, nine or ten altogether, giving off a parole-board vibe I hadn’t yet seen in a meeting. The vibe said this was serious AA for serious people. No tools, posers, or dilettantes need apply.

I wanted in. Hung around after the meeting, putting chairs away and checking out the parole board, who were in no hurry to leave. Aware of me, they hemmed and hawed and made small talk. Finally the cobweb-tattoo guy took my arm. “See you next week, pal?”

“Well,” I said, glancing at the front of the room.

“That’s the meeting-after-the-meeting, pal,” he said, gently aiming me at the door. “You’re not ready for that. No way, no how.”

*   *   *

I hit my house just before twelve and saw Randall Swale in the driveway staring at a pile of decking. The wood delivery was the reason I’d made the Phigg meeting a very early lunch deal: In this neighborhood, anything we didn’t screw down today would be stolen tonight.

A friend had left me the house. He’d died badly. I made sure the guys responsible did the same. I was spending a lot of time there, rehabbing the place so I could sell it. Needed the cash: My last job at a Pontiac-GMC dealership hadn’t worked out, and I’d sworn off working for anybody but myself. The idea was to flip the house and use the dough to start another shop of my own.

It’s an old four-square colonial on a quarter acre, south side of Framingham. For years the neighborhood had been mostly Brazilian, but the Brazilians were moving out because the feds were busting illegals. That was a bad deal for the neighborhood. Brazilians liked to get drunk and fight each other with knives on Saturday night, but otherwise they mostly worked their asses off and minded their own business. And as the houses emptied of Brazilians, they either went to Section 8 tenants or became squats for bums and junkies.

The guy who left me the house, and his mother before him, had lived here sixty years. Everything needed work, especially the in-law apartment on the top floor: I couldn’t sell the place until I brought the place up to code. I was nibbling away at the work. Sometimes I slept here. Sometimes I slept at my girlfriend Charlene’s place in Shrewsbury.

I stuffed my truck at the foot of the driveway and climbed out. Randall wore work boots, khakis, no shirt. He worked shirtless a lot in this freak mid-June heat wave. His skin had started UPS-brown and had gone purple-black in the sun. He’s half a foot shorter than me and has half a pound of fat on him. Earned his muscles in the army, not the gym. His father, Luther, my parole officer, introduced us. Randall had standing offers, some with full-boat academic scholarships, from a half dozen good schools. I didn’t know why he was still hanging around with me; the nearest I’d ever been to college was a transmission swap I did for the dean of Framingham State.

Heat wave or no, Randall always wore long pants. He’d lost his right foot to mid-calf in Iraq and wore a prosthetic with a cool ceramic-and-titanium ankle joint. You’d never guess he had a leg and a half—especially if you challenged him to a footrace.

He swept a hand. “What in God’s name is this?”

“Lumber for the deck,” I said. “Ordered twelve hundred linear feet. Looks about right.”

“You call this lumber?” He picked up an eight-footer, sighted down it at me. “I’ll never claim to be an expert, but this isn’t Home Depot decking. This is serious, tight-grained hardwood, and the truck that delivered it had a fancy specialty-shop logo.”

My face went red as he spoke. I knew where we were headed. I said, “Ipe.”

“Ee-pay?” he said. “Are you speaking Pig Latin now?”

I spelled it, pronounced it again. “It’s a Brazilian hardwood. Good stuff, lasts forever.”

“Cost?”

I shrugged.

Randall shook his head, bent, picked up more ipe, headed for the back of the house. I scooped ipe and followed. “The plan was bring this place up to code, pretty it up a little, and sell it fast,” he said. “Remember?”

We stepped through the skeleton of the new deck we’d built off the kitchen. I said, “In case I wind up renting the place instead of selling, the ipe’ll save me money in the long run. No maintenance, no splits.”

“You can barely say that with a straight face,” he said. “What about blowing out that kitchen wall? What about the fancy tile in the bathroom? What about pulling the perfectly decent vinyl siding?” He finger-ticked as he spoke.

I said nothing.

We went around front for more wood.

“You keep finding excuses not to finish up and sell,” Randall said. “And the neighborhood’s going downhill fast, so every nickel you spend is a nickel lost.”

We stacked a half dozen twelve-footers and each took an end. I walked backward and said, “Nothing wrong with doing a job right.”

“Nonsense.” Randall’s voice was soft now.

I said nothing.

Randall said, “Ask yourself what’s really going on, Conway. And be honest, okay?”

“I’ll get the chop saw.”

*   *   *

Five hours later we stood sweating on ipe. I held a water. Randall held a beer.

“Nice,” I said. “Small, but a good selling point. You think?”

“Sure.”

“’Preciate the help. You take off. I’ll clean up, put a coat of oil on it tomorrow.”

He toasted me, finished his beer, set the empty next to the kitchen door, grabbed his T-shirt. On his way past he set a hand on my shoulder. “Ask,” Randall said, “and be honest.”

My jaw felt tight. I nodded.

I swept, policed up screws we’d dropped, stacked leftover ipe in the one-car detached garage we planned to tear down soon. Although lately I’d been rethinking that: It’d make a nice workshop. For someone.

I brought the chop saw and cordless drills into the kitchen. I didn’t dare leave them in the garage, with its rotted door. The way this neighborhood was going, they’d be stolen and traded for meth before the eleven-o’clock news.

I drank another water. Talked to my cats, Dale and Davey. Thought about dinner.

Thought about Charlene. I should call.

I texted instead: Wrking on deck, will stay here 2nite, xoxo.

She texted back: K.

I stared at the letter.

I’d been pushing Charlene away for a while.

It was working.

Shit.

I looked at Dale. “We like it here,” I said. “Right?”

Both cats stared.

 

Copyright © 2011 by Steve Ulfelder

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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 26, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Loaded with twists and spins, Purgatory Chasm is an exciting action-packed amateur sleuth mystery

    In Framingham, Massachusetts auto mechanic Conway Sax detests insufferable Tander Phigg, but the man belongs to the Alcoholics Anonymous Barnburner group. The Barnburners saved his life by sobering him up so Conway vowed to repay them whenever he can.

    Thus when the pig Phigg asks Conway to retrieve his 1980 Mercedes from New Hampshire Das Motorenwerk garage that has possessed his vintage auto for eighteen months, Sax reluctantly agrees. However, the seemingly simple request turns convoluted when someone at the garage knocks him out and later he learns someone killed Tander. The police suspect Sax of the murder as he is an ex con who has been fingered for being the last person seen with the deceased. Conway has two missions to resolve: first prove his innocence and second get the vehicle.

    Loaded with twists and spins, Purgatory Chasm is an exciting action-packed amateur sleuth mystery starring a fascinating flawed individual. Conway makes the tale work as a person in trouble who investigates the murder while also planning to repo the car. His past is nicely interwoven into the strong plot so that readers understand why he feels obligated to the Barnburner group.

    Harriet Klausner

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2013

    Decent Read

    Not the typical book I read, however I did enjoy it. Its a different paced murder mystery lite. The main character is atypical and refreshing and this kept me reading it at a nightly pace. The book had no real highs but no real lows either.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 5, 2014

    I'll tell you one thing- I don't want to hang around the protago

    I'll tell you one thing- I don't want to hang around the protagonist of this book. Lots of bad mojo for the people he cares about. But he goes through problems like a tank, crushing everything in his path. We've got a very flawed man with a bad past who's trying to be a better person. It's a constant, uphill struggle, and we're absorbed in the effort.

    The dialog rings true, and the characters are real. Some are terrible people, mean, and self-destructive, but that makes for a great story of interest. You'll enjoy the book and appreciate how much better your life is than Conway's.

    Even when treading the familar ground of the alcoholic who's in AA, the author keeps it fresh and interesting. He's got stiff competition for this turf- James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, and many others, but he holds his own with them.

    A tale well told. Will definitely seek out more by this author.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2013

    Not great

    The protagonist is an ex con, reformed alcoholic, not-exactly-reformed thug, doing favors for a bunch of other thugs and losers associated with a branch of AA. Not a terribly appealing premise or "hero."

    The plot is also neither original nor plausible. Why doesn't this genius give the cops pertinent info? Why does he pursue inquiries after the instigator, who he didn't like, dies? No good reason. Guy's a mechanic, not a sleuth, as he demonstrates repeatedly. This is not his fight, and with no good reason for his behavior, the story is pointless. Not that this is unusual in fiction featuring amateur detectives, but with each additional nosy parker like that I read about, I become increasingly unwilling to suspend my disbelief in the character's actions.

    Bottom line, book is implausible and the characters unlikeable.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 2, 2012

    Promising

    An interesting read with some very nice character development but somewhat flawed by an overly complex plot that stretches the realms of probability a litle too far at times.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 12, 2011

    A Revved Up Thriller

    Thriller does not begin to describe this break a neck pace of this whodunit story. The author had me belted in from the first word and kept me stuck in the seat until the shocking end of the ride. Mr. Ulfelder is poised to become one the hottest new mystery writers this year. Thank you to Early Readers for bring this awesome author to my attention!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted May 8, 2013

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