A Swollen Red Sun

A Swollen Red Sun

by Matthew McBride


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“Rough and ready suspense, encompassing a wide array of characters from the sour side of life” from the author of Frank Sinatra in a Blender (Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone ).

In Gasconade County, Missouri—once called the meth capital of the world—Deputy Sheriff Dale Banks discovers $52,000 hidden in the broken-down trailer that Jerry Dean Skaggs uses for cooking crystal. And he takes it. Banks knows what he did was wrong, but he did it for all the right reasons. At least, he thinks so. But for every wrong, there is a consequence.

Jerry Dean can’t afford to lose that $52,000—he owes it to his partners and to a crooked cop. He also can’t afford to disappoint the crazed and fearsome Reverend Butch Pogue, who is expecting Jerry Dean to deliver the chemicals the reverend needs for his next batch of meth. To avoid the holy man’s wrath, Jerry Dean sets in motion a series of events that will threaten Banks’s family, his life, and everything he thinks he knows about the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480485754
Publisher: MysteriousPress.com/Open Road
Publication date: 06/17/2014
Pages: 254
Sales rank: 647,867
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Matthew McBride is a former assembly-line worker living in rural Missouri. In his words, “These people are the people I know and see every day, and this is the world I know.” He is also the author of the cult hit Frank Sinatra in a Blender.

Read an Excerpt

A Swollen Red Sun

By Matthew McBride

A MysteriousPress.com

Copyright © 2014 Matthew McBride
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-8571-6


The sun went down behind the mobile home like a burst of egg yolk that dripped from the sky and consumed the trees. Sycamores on the river cast long shadows in the burnt auburn hue, and golden shafts punched holes through plump clouds that looked ripe to carry wetness for days.

Woodpeckers knocked and pecked as spring water rose and swooshed through gullies and creeks, climbing their walls and swelling the ditches in low-country places, as the limbs grew plump with leaves and branches fought branches when the cool river kicked up wind.

Deputy Sheriff Dale Everett Banks stood beside the mobile home with a shotgun in his hands. He watched the windows for movement and listened for the sounds an old trailer makes when someone inside walks in a manner in which not to be detected.

"You in there, Jerry Dean? This is the Gasconade County Sheriff's Department."

Jerry Dean Skaggs was a convict on parole, for shooting a bald eagle, and a shit bum to all who knew him. He was violent, had a burly appetite for amphetamines, and was known to have a mean drunk-on come evening.

Deputy Banks pounded on the side of the mobile home. "Jerry Dean, I have a shotgun in my hands." Banks racked the pump action. "We need to talk to ya, bud."

Banks looked back at Deputy Bo Hastings as he circled the trailer with the strap of his Glock uncapped, his hand on the butt. He walked cautiously, with slow deliberate steps, heel to toe, tall grass spreading out flat beneath each polished shoe.

Both cops watched the windows. They heard only birds and wind and the approaching sound of an outboard motor humming between the bloated mudbanks of the Gasconade.

They met at the end of the trailer and exchanged doubts.

"Awful quiet in there," Banks said.

Hastings nodded.

"I'm gonna try the door."

Hastings knelt beside the trailer and looked below through the spacious gaps in the underpending, and everything he saw was covered in a dark coating of filth. There was an old bicycle and a cooler and a boat motor. Children's toys filled boxes that were damp from moisture and looked ready to fall apart.

Deputy Banks saw the doorknob turned freely, and he kicked the bottom of the door with his foot and nodded for Hastings, but Hastings was already where he needed to be, his Glock drawn, ready to back any play Banks made with gunfire.

Banks went in first, the 12-gauge in front of him.

"This is the Gasconade County Sheriff's Department looking for Jerry Dean Skaggs."

Hastings followed behind Banks and walked down the short hallway with caution. He stumbled over toys until he found a small pink room. The drapes were stained brown, and what didn't hold stain had faded. Purple stuffed animals were sullied with cat piss. A litter box at the end of the hall overflowed with turds. Someone had written little buddy across the top in red marker.

Hastings found a portable cook stove and a cardboard box filled with lithium batteries. Another box held cans of ether and hoses and tubes. Hastings picked up a gallon bag filled with striker strips from old matchboxes and knocked over an empty Coleman fuel bottle with his shoe.

"Hey, looks like they been cookin' back here, Dale."

Banks walked into the back room, having secured the other end of the mobile home. His meaty hands relaxed their grip on the shotgun. "Find any product?"

Hastings said no, but now they had proof of what they had already known. Jerry Dean Skaggs was cooking meth in the child's bedroom of a dilapidated trailer home that was one step above being condemned or falling over—whichever came first.

Banks—a solid three hundred, with a plain, round face and heavy jowls growing from a wide, fat neck that sprouted from the gap of his shirt collar—turned to leave and his frame filled the doorway in full. The worn sheets of raw plywood creaked and split under his mass.

Hastings said, "Goddamn, Dale, don't fall through the floor."

The outside air was fresh and cool. It greeted them with the tang of river and fish, a scent both country boys knew, and one much better than the stench of a twelve-by-sixty-foot meth lab that smelled like ammonia and cat piss.

Deputy Hastings sat against the hood of his cruiser and chewed a mouthful of sunflower seeds.

Banks set his shotgun on the seat and grabbed a can of Skoal off the dash.

They'd taken the call together. They'd both been in the area, and Helmig Ferry sat a good half hour from nowhere. A deputy never knew what he might walk into. Backup was a good idea when it was available.

Skaggs had family in the hills and the huts and the trailers along the river. Spread out through miles of wooded hills and rock mountains. Country people connected by blood. They did not trust law and had no need for government. Money came hard, and the rural patchwork of Gasconade County was ripe with hillbilly chefs cooking meth wherever they could.

White-trash pharmacies run from beaten-down mobile homes at the end of dead- end roads would always trade pills for dope. A box of pills got you half a gram. The price you paid was having your name go on a list for the police to read.

Pills were hard to come by, and deals were made. People traded what they had for what they needed, but anybody who cooked methamphetamine needed anhydrous ammonia. Anhydrous ammonia was worth more than money—but pseudoephedrine was worth more than anhydrous.

You needed both if you wanted to cook good dope.

An aluminum johnboat with an outboard hummed upriver, and a man with a long oil slick of black hair and white skin and tattoos so bad you could tell they were bad from a distance turned to the right and tossed a cigarette into the boat's wake.

"Think that's him?"

"It's him," Banks said.

People from the hills were a cautious bunch; people on the river even more so. The sight of two cruisers parked at a trailer home meant somebody's kin was going to jail, and on the river it seemed like everybody was kin—one way or another—to everybody else.

"Only a fella didn't wanna be seen woulda looked away. 'Less he didn't see us," Hastings said.

"He seen us."

Hastings was a tall, lean kid with wide shoulders that stretched his shirts tight across the back and a chin strong enough you could pound on it for a while. His long, straight face was hard in the jaw. He was a cowboy who rode bulls until his dreams broke when a behemoth named Captain Sam threw him at the state fair and his back broke.

His daddy was a deputy before him, until he got his head stuck inside a bottle. The name Hastings hung over the kid like a dark cloud. Weighted him down. He had ruts carved into his reputation and a lot to prove.

Banks picked up his radio. "104 to Gasconade Central."

"Gasconade Central, go ahead, 104."

"Gasconade Central, show me and 109 at Helmig Ferry, off Highway BB. Subject does not appear to be home at this time. Please advise."

Hastings looked at Banks as he drove a plump finger into the sweet black velvet and dug up a fat wad of Skoal and dropped it in his mouth and pushed it down behind his lip with his tongue.

"104, be advised, either yourself or 109 should wait. Otherwise one of y'all'll have to go back out tomorrow."

"Gasconade Central, this is 104. Thank you, ma'am. Will do."

Hastings looked upriver and held his hand to his eyes to shield them from the sun. "Well, what'll it be, boss?" he said. "I don't even see this guy no more."

Banks drew up a mouthful of spit and shot a long, juicy stream into the dirt.

"It don't matter to me none, Bo. Don't y'all got a ball game tonight?"

Hastings nodded. "We do."

"Well, go on, then. Get. See to it your old lady gets your drunk ass home in one piece after the game."

Hastings grinned and said, "Yes, sir." He wore his good-ol'-boy values across his face like a bad cliché as he left Helmig Ferry and drove to Owensville to play softball with a bunch of other good ol' boys.

Banks moved his car from plain sight and parked behind a point of cedars. He checked his smart phone for a signal, but the reception at Helmig Ferry was touch and go. He played a game he'd downloaded, but his bratwurst-size fingers betrayed him at every opportunity until he finally set the phone down for good.

Banks tapped the Skoal and thunked the lid with a thick finger and packed it tight, then scooped out a pinch and a half to shove behind his lip.

The mist rolled in at twilight and cool air pushed a dense sheet of iron-gray fog in his direction as birds chirped above his head and the locusts squawked and hawed.

He realized the bedroom light was on when he turned to spit out the cruiser's window.

His head froze instantly where it was, and his hand moved to the gun on his hip. His eyes swept the area while the hair on the back of his neck stood rigid. A dab of juice coated his chin as he moved for the radio.

He thought of calling for backup but did not know if the light had been on or not. Bo had followed him out, but Banks did not know if the other deputy had turned it off. Had he ever turned it on?

Banks spit out the window without looking or aiming and thought about what he should do. How long had he been sitting there? Maybe he'd fallen asleep. It was calm, and the breeze embraced him through open windows in a lavish wave of sweet honeysuckle. Or dogwood. Whatever that smell was.

He removed the wad of snuff, which still had plenty of life, and flung it out the window. It was probably not worth checking out. He could leave. He was alone, and he was not getting shot by some tweaker.

Dale Everett Banks had one job: go home alive to his wife and kids. No one would blame him for leaving. No one would know but him. Leaving was the smart choice.

Banks considered sliding out the car's window so the light would not come on, but he knew he would not fit. He opened the door quickly. Turned sideways and stood up. The Glock in his right hand, he carefully, quietly closed the door and listened.

He thought about his partner. Hastings was sitting in Memorial Park, drinking cold Natural Light on the tailgate of a pickup truck with his cute wife painted on his side.

Banks drew in a bottomless mouthful of chilled air and turned down the volume on the radio. He walked and he listened. Someone was inside.

Banks felt his throat burn, and his heart slammed against his ribs in a way that was both appalling and invigorating. It was too late to call for backup. Deputies in rural Missouri worked alone. Always outnumbered and outgunned.

Come home alive. Those were the words cops lived by.

They waited on Highway K in an old Chevy truck with a two-tone yellow-and-white cab and a blue bed with no tailgate. One wore a red bandanna like a bandit, and the other wore a Halloween mask he'd taken from his sister's kid.

Jerry Dean Skaggs tapped his fingers on the wheel. Not because he was nervous, but because he had not slept in four days. He sucked a Winston through the mouth hole he had cut in the bandanna and concentrated on finding a sign of the truck through his binoculars. He thought about the cops who had been at his place earlier and looked over at his compadre.

"You with me, jack-off?"

Jackson Brandt wore a Darth Vader mask cocked to one side as he lit a small butane torch. He held the torch to a glass pipe, and together they watched the bottom fill with clear swirls of smoke. Jackson wet his lips then let off the torch's trigger and welcomed a bowl full of chemicals into his lungs.

That first breath of fresh dope was revitalizing. His thoughts began to whirl inside his head; slowly, he set the pipe down on the armrest and melted into the battered seat cover.

"Gimmie that, Jackson." Jerry Dean pulled at it.

Jackson looked at him. "Huh?"

Jerry Dean was broad across the chest and covered in jailhouse graffiti. His nose was wide and bent from countless breakings and bustings. His eyes were set low under his brow, the left quick to wilt, but both were brown and vacant and capable of limited emotion.

He pitched his butt out the window and exhaled, then returned that spent breath with a clean hit of crank that pierced his reality like a hollow-point round.

Both tweakers kept to themselves, thought boundless thoughts, and made plans of all the things they promised themselves they would do but never would—things they would build if they just had time, and they did have time, had nothing but time, except the habits of a meth cook were sporadic, depending on what project he worked on between batches of dope—and these projects varied from one task to another in various stages of completion, since no sooner did a meth cook start one thing than his mind would fire off vital, superlative orders for the body to follow, which it did, at least it tried to, but often the need and desire and compulsion was outweighed by the strong pull to sit in a cool, safe place with plenty of windows and smoke speed, watch for people, and wonder when the front door of your mobile home would blow off its hinges from a battering ram—because the same customers who drove a hundred miles for fresh dope were the first ones to tell the cops where they bought it when they got pulled over on the way home.

Jackson asked Jerry Dean if he was sure about this thing that they was about to do.

Jerry Dean looked up. "Don't start in with that pussy bullshit. It's too late ta pull out now."

"No, it ain't."

"Oh yes, it is. That old bastard'll be roundin' that corner in a hot minute. You best get your head right. Make sure you can drive this truck."

"My head is right J.D., and you know I can drive this truck. Long as this piece o' shit don't break down."

Jerry Dean looked over, balled up his fists. "Them's fightin' words 'n' you know it. It's a goddamn Chevrolet."

"Whatever, man. Just hand me that pipe."

Jerry Dean handed Jackson the pipe and he sprinkled powder in the bowl and struck the torch and inhaled the smoke. They waited for the old man to come.

Olen Brandt spent the day on his Allis-Chalmers tractor, feeding hay in round bales to the cattle on his 240-acre ranch outside of Mount Sterling. The weather was backward in every way that it could be. One day, it rained and got cool; the next, it was hot and sticky, the humidity a wet veneer that coated his aged and withered body with cold sweat. Even in summer, he kept a flannel at arm's reach.

It was hell getting old. Things that used to work didn't. Things that did work barely worked at all. His hands throbbed and took turns falling asleep. Lately, his bladder was failing him. He always had to piss, but when it came time for the pissing, the urge left as quickly as it had come. Sometimes he was too late and wet himself before he got off the tractor. He'd been forced to take precautions.

"Don't worry," his doctor said. "You're eighty-one years old. Feel lucky you can still drive a tractor."

But that was easy for him to say. He was thirty-one. He wasn't the one in diapers.

"Come on, girl," Olen called to his Australian shepherd, Sandy, and closed the gap to the bottom forty. He pulled the homemade fence across gravel, the one he'd built twenty-five years ago with barbed wire and old posts. "Come on, girl," he said again.

Sandy was getting up there in her own years, but the one comfort Olen took was knowing he would go before she would. That was one less body he would have to put in the ground. One less face—animal or human—he would have to say good-bye to.

At the same time, those particular thoughts grieved him the most. Kept him up at night, long after he should be in slumber. If he died, what would happen to his girl? His Sandy. She was all he had left after he'd lost Arlene to cancer.

He had one departed son, waiting with his mother, and another son as good as dead: locked up in a cage he might never get out of for a crime he surely did.

Olen climbed back on the tractor and slipped the long handle forward, easing off the clutch, and she purred, smooth, and black diesel smoke poured from the pipe as he goosed the throttle.

The hill ran steep and rough with knots and undergrowth and fathead stumps, some rotten and dead, but strong. Olen followed his usual path with Sandy trotting behind as the sun spread wide to his right with swaths of butter-yellow patches and bursts of pink flavor among blue.

The skin stretched tight over his smoke-gray jaw, and silver hair lapped above his ears. What little hung over blew when the wind came.

When he reached the peak and the rough ground became smooth, he eased up on the lever and worked the gas, and the diesel relaxed, but the smoke pipe still pumped an oil cloud that the wind took and fed to the sky.


Excerpted from A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride. Copyright © 2014 Matthew McBride. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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