If everything is bigger in Texas, then that includes the boldness of the criminals who call the state home. From large urban centers to the Cajun Gulf coast, there is big money to be made running guns, drugs, and catering to the greedy and disillusioned. Each distinctive region can claim its own special brand of outlaw.
In Lone Star Noir, you’ll find stories by James Crumley, Joe R. Lansdale, Claudia Smith, Ito Romo, Luis Alberto Urrea, David Corbett, George Wier, Sarah Cortez, Jesse Sublett, Dean James, Tim Tingle, Milton T. Burton, Lisa Sandlin, Jessica Powers, and Bobby Byrd.
“This isn’t J.R. Ewing’s Lone Star State. This is the Texas of chicken shit bingo, Enron scamsters, and a feeling that what happens in Mexico stays in Mexico . . . So what defines Texas noir? Who knows, but you better pray that blood doesn’t stain your belt buckle.” —The Austin Chronicle
About the Author
John Byrd, co-publisher of Cinco Puntos Press, is co-editor (with Bobby Byrd) of the anthology Puro Border: Dispatches, Snapshots & Graffiti from La Frontera. He is also a Spanish-to-English translator and a freelance essayist.
Read an Excerpt
PHELAN'S FIRST CASE BY Lisa Sandlin Beaumont
Five past eight. Phelan sat tipped back in his desk chair, appreciating the power of the Beaumont Enterprise. They'd centered the ad announcing his new business, boxed it in black, and spelled his name right. The other ad in the classifieds had brought in two girls yesterday. He figured to choose the brunette with the coral nails and the middle-C voice. But just then he got a call from his old high school bud Joe Ford, now a parole officer, and Joe was hard-selling.
"Typing, dictation, whatcha need? She learned it in the big house. Paid her debt to society. What say you talk to her?"
"Find some other sucker. Since when are you Acme Employment?"
"Since when are you a private eye?"
"Since workers' comp paid me enough bread to swing a lease."
"For a measly finger? Thought you liked the rigs."
"Still got nine fingers left. Aim to keep 'em."
"Just see this girl, Tommy. She knows her stuff."
"Why you pushing her?"
"Hell, phones don't answer themselves, do they?"
"Didn't they invent a machine that —"
Joe blew scorn through the phone. "Communist rumor. Lemme send her over. She can get down there in two shakes."
"I'm gonna say this one time. Who had your back the night you stepped outside with Narlan Pugh and all his cousins stepped outside behind him?"
"One time, shit. I heard it three. Time you realized gratitude comes to a natural end, same as a sack of donuts."
"Goddamnit, no promises."
"Naw! Course not. Make it or break it on her own. Thanks for the chance, it'll buck her up."
Phelan asked about the girl's rap sheet but the dial tone was noncommittal.
Drumming his fingers, he glanced out his window toward the Mobil refinery's methane flare, Beaumont's own Star of Bethlehem. Far below ran a pewter channel of the Neches, sunlight coating the dimples of the water. Black-hulled tankers were anchored in the port, white topsides, striped flags riffling against the drift of spring clouds.
Or that's the view he'd have once his business took off — San Jacinto Building, seventh floor. Mahogany paneling, brasstrimmed elevator. Now he looked out on the New Rosemont, $1 and Up, where a ceiling fan once fell on the proprietress. The secretary's office had a window too, where sunlight and humidity pried off the paint on the Rosemont's fire escape.
8:32. Footsteps were sounding on the stairs to his second-story walk-up.
Wasn't skipping up here, was she? Measured tread. The knock on the door lately lettered Thomas Phelan, Investigations wasn't fast, wasn't slow. Not loud, not soft.
Phelan opened up. Well. Not a girl. Couple crows had stepped lightly at the corners of her eyes; a faint crease of bitter slanted from the left side of her barely tinted lips. Ash-brown hair, jaw-length, roomy white blouse, navy skirt. Jailhouse tan. Eyes gray-blue, a little clouded, distant, like a storm rolling in from out in the gulf. This one wouldn't sit behind the desk blowing on her polish. The hand he was shaking had naked nails cut to the quick.
"Delpha Wade." Her voice was low and dry.
Delpha Wade. His brain ratcheted a picture toward him but not far enough, like when a Mars bar gets hung up partway out the vending machine.
They sat down in his office, him in a gimpy swivel behind a large metal desk, both included in the rent. Her in one of the proud new clients' chairs, padded leather with regally tall backs.
"Gotta be honest with you, Miss Wade. Think I already found a secretary."
No disappointment in those blue eyes, no hope either. She just passed a certificate with a gold seal across the desk. The paper said she typed seventy words a minute, spoke shorthand, could do double entry. The brunette with the coral nails claimed all that too, but she'd backed it up with a giggle, not a diploma from Gatesville.
"Your first choice of a job a P.I.'s office?"
"My first choice is a job."
Touché. "What number interview would this be for you?"
"I'm flattered. Get off the bus, you come here."
The blue eyes let in a smidgen of light. "Course that doesn't count the dozen applications I wrote out 'fore they showed me the door."
No wonder Joe was pushing her. "Had your druthers ... where'd you work, Miss Wade?"
"Library. I like libraries. It's what I did there."
There being Gatesville. Now that she'd brought it up.
"How many you do?"
Phelan quelled the whistle welling up. That let out checkkiting, forgery, embezzling from the till, and probably dope. He was about to ask her the delicate when she handed it to him on a foil tray. "Voluntary manslaughter."
"And you did fourteen?"
"He was very dead, Mr. Phelan."
His brain shoved: the picture fell into the slot. Phelan'd been a teenager, jazzed by blood-slinging, and reporters had loved the story. Waitress in a bayou dive, waiting for the owner to collect the take. Alone. Two guys thrown out earlier came back — beat her, raped her, cut her. Father and son, that was the kicker. That, and they went for the girl before the cash register. But surprise. Somehow the knife had changed hands. The father'd got punctured and son sliced. When the owner's headlights showed, dear old Dad ran for their heap and peeled. Delpha Wade had not let nature take its course. She finished off Junior in the oyster-shell parking lot.
The Gatesville certificate was being fit into a faded black leather clutch, years out of date. She gathered her feet under her. But didn't stand up. Those eyes got to him. No hope, no despair. Just a storm cloud back on the blue horizon.
The outer door tapped. A hesitant tap, like a mouse was out there. "'Scuse me," Phelan said and stood. His chair flopped its wooden seat upward like its next occupant would arrive in it via the ceiling. He wrenched it up; the seat surrendered again. "Gotta fix that," he muttered.
When he looked up, he saw Delpha Wade's straight back, walking out. Funny, he'd had the impression she wouldn't fold so easy.
"Forgot your purse, Miss Wade."
"No, I didn't." She shut the door between their offices — or rather, the door between his office and whoever got the secretary job's office — soundlessly. He heard, "Good morning, ma'am. Do you have an appointment to see Mr. Phelan?" Her dry voice was smooth as a Yale lock.
Phelan smiled. I'll be damned. He tipped the chair's seat into loading position and sat in it, like the boss should.
"May I ask what your visit is in reference to?"
More mumbling, a lot of it. Then — Phelan hated this sound — sobbing. Not that he hadn't prepared for it. He'd bought a box of Kleenex at the dime store for the brokenhearted wives. Stashed it in the desk's bottom drawer next to the husbands' fifth of Kentucky. Had his .38 license in his wallet, P.I. license on the wall, newly minted business cards on the desk. An ex-con impersonating a secretary.
Delpha Wade entered, closing the door behind her. "Can you see a client now, Mr. Phelan?"
"Bring her on." He was rooting for a cheated-on society matron in crocodile pumps, her very own checkbook snapped inside a croc bag.
"You can go in now, Mrs. Toups."
A bone-thin woman in yesterday's makeup and rumpled shirtwaist took the doorway. Leatherette purse in her fists, little gold nameplate like a cashier's pinned over her left breast. The two slashes between her eyebrows tightened. "You're kinda young. I was looking for —"
"An old retired cop?" Delpha Wade said. On cop her neutral voice bunched. "Mr. Phelan has a fresh point of view."
What Mr. Phelan had was a fresh legal pad. He wielded a ballpoint over it. "Please, sit down, Mrs. Toups. Tell me what I can do for you."
Delpha Wade scooped an elbow, tucked her into the client chair, at the same time saying, "Can I get you some coffee? Cream and sugar?"
Phelan furrowed his own brow, trying to grow some wrinkles. Coffee, he thought. What coffee?
"Take a Coke, if you got one."
The inner door closed behind Delpha Wade, and he heard the outer door shut too. His first client stammered into her story; Phelan's ballpoint despoiled the virginal legal pad. The Kleenex stayed in their drawer. Caroleen Toups had her own hankie.
By the time his nonsecretary returned with a dewy bottle of Coke, Phelan had the story. The Toups's lived over on the north side, not far off Concord, nothing that could be called a neighborhood, more like one of a string of old wooden houses individually hacked out of the woods. Her boy Richard was into something and she didn't like it. He'd been skipping school. Running around all hours. Then last night Richard had not come home.
Gently, Phelan asked, "Report that to the police?"
"Seven o'clock this morning. They said boys run off all the time. Said been a bunch of boys running off lately. Four or five. Like it's a club."
Phelan silently agreed, having once woken up with two or three friends on a New Orleans sidewalk, littered, lacquered, and convinced somebody'd driven rebar through his forehead. "What does your husband think?"
"He passed last fall. Took a virus in his heart." Her reddened eyes offered to share that grief with him, but Phelan bowed his head and went on.
"Does Richard have a favorite item of clothing?"
"Some silly shoes that make him taller. And a Johnny Winter Tshirt he bought at a concert over in Port Arthur."
"Would you know if those are gone from his room?"
"I would ... Mr. Phelan." Having managed to bestow on T. Phelan's callow mug that title of respect, Mrs. Toups looked at him hopefully. "They're not."
"Have a piggy bank?"
She snapped the purse open and took out a roll, Andrew Jackson on top. "Till about midnight," she said, "I read the Enterprise. That's where I saw your ad. After midnight I searched my son's room with a fine-tooth comb. This was in a cigar box under his bed. Along with some baseball cards and twisty cigarettes. There's $410 here. Ricky's in tenth grade, Mr. Phelan. He don't have a job."
The phone rang in the outer office, followed by the light click of the reconditioned Selectric. "You wouldn't a brought a picture of him?"
Mrs. Toups dug into the leatherette, handed over a school photo. Fair and baby-faced, long-haired like a lot of kids these days. Grinning like he was saddled on a Christmas pony. Ricky Toups when he still had a daddy.
The mother's tired eyes held a rising rim of water. "Why I wanted you to look old and tough — you find Ricky, scare him good. I cain't take any more a this."
Phelan was jolted by a gut feeling, a pact connecting him to that haggard mother. He hadn't expected it. "Okay," he said quickly. While Mrs. Toups sipped her Coke, he scrawled her address and phone number, then jotted an inventory of Ricky's friends. Make that friend, a neighbor girl, Georgia Watson. School? French High, Phelan's own alma mater, an orange-brick sprawl with a patchy football field. The legal pad was broken in now.
He wrote her name on a standard contract and slid it toward her. He'd practiced the next part so he could spit it out without blinking. "Fee is seventy-five a day. Plus expenses."
Nobody was blinking here. Mrs. Toups peeled off five Jacksons. "Could you start now?"
"First day's crucial on a missing-child case," Phelan said, like he knew. "You're at the top of the schedule."
He guided Mrs. Toups through the outer office to the door. To his right, Delpha Wade sat behind the secretary's desk, receiver tucked into her neck, typing. Typing what? And where had she got the paper?
"A Mrs. Lloyd Elliott would like to speak with you about a confidential matter. Says her husband's an attorney." Delpha Wade's dry voice was hushed, and she rubbed her thumb and fingers together in the universal sign for money.
She got that right. According to the Enterprise, Lloyd Elliott had just won some court case that paid him 30 percent of yippee-I-never-have-to-work-again.
Mrs. Toups stuck her reddened face back in the door, a last plea on it. But at the sight of Phelan taking the phone, she ducked her head and left.
"Tom Phelan," he said. Crisply, without one um or you know, the woman on the phone told him she wanted her husband followed, where to, and why. She'd bring by a retainer. Cash.
"That'll work. Get back to you soon. Please leave any relevant details with my ... with Miss Wade. You can trust her."
And don't I hope that's true, he thought, clattering down the stairs.
The band was playing when Phelan pulled up to French High School. God, did he remember this parking lot: clubhouse, theater, and smoking lounge. He lit up for nostalgia's sake.
A little shitkicker perched on the trunk of a Mustang pushed back his Resistol. He had his boots on the bumper, one knee jackhammering hard enough to shiver the car. Phelan offered him a smoke.
Haughtily, the kid produced some Bull and rolled his own. "Take a light."
Phelan obliged. "You know Georgia Watson?"
"Out there. Georgia's in Belles." The boy lofted his chin toward the field that joined the parking lot.
"What about Ricky Toups?"
The kid tugged down the hat, blew out smoke. "Kinda old to be into weed, ain't ya?"
"That why people come looking for Ricky?"
Marlboro-Man-in-training doused the homemade, stashed it behind his ear. Slid off the trunk and booked.
Phelan turned toward the field, where the band played a lazy version of "Grazing in the Grass." The Buffalo Belles were high-kicking, locked shoulder to shoulder. Line of smiling faces, white, black, and café au lait, bouncing hair and breasts, 120 teenage legs, kicked up high. Fondly remembering a pair of those white boots hooked over his shoulders postgame, he strolled toward the rousing sight.
After their routine, the girls milled sideline while the band marched patterns. Phelan asked for Georgia and found her, said he wanted to talk.
This is who Ricky Toups thought hung the moon? Georgia Watson had an overloaded bra, all right, and cutoffs so short the hems of white pockets poked out like underwear. But she was a dish-faced girl with frizzled hair and cagey brown eyes. Braided gold chain tucked into the neck of a white T-shirt washed thin.
She steered him away from the knots of babbling girls. Her smile threw a murky light into the brown eyes. Black smudges beneath them from her gobbed eyelashes.
He introduced himself with a business card. "Ricky Toups's mother asked me to check up on him. He got any new friends you know about?" She jettisoned the smile, shrugged.
"C'mon, Georgia. Ricky thinks you're his friend."
She made a production of whispering, "Ricky was helping this guy with something, but I think that's all over."
"Something," she hissed. She angled toward some girls staring frankly at them and fluttered her fingers in a wave. Nobody waved back.
"This guy. Why's Ricky not helping him anymore?"
Georgia shook her head, looking over Phelan's shoulder like she was refusing somebody who wasn't there. "Fun at first, then he turned scary. Ricky's gonna quit hanging out with him, even though that means —" Her trap shut.
"Giving up the green," Phelan finished. His little finger flicked out the braided chain around the girl's neck. Fancy G in twenty-four carat. "How long y'all had this scary friend?"
The head shaking continued, like a tic now.
Phelan violated her personal space. "Name. And where the guy lives."
The girl backed up. "I don't know, some D name, Don or Darrell or something. Gotta go now."
Phelan caught her arm. "Ricky didn't come home last night."
White showed around the brown eyes. She spit out a sentence, included her phone number when pressed, then jerked her arm away and ran back to the other girls on the sideline. They practiced dance steps in bunches, laughed, horsed around. Georgia stood apart biting her bottom lip, the little white square of his business card pinched in her fingers.
11:22. He drove back to the office, took the stairs two at a time. Delpha handed him Mrs. Lloyd Elliott's details neatly typed on the back of a sheet of paper. Phelan read it and whistled. "Soon's she brings that retainer, Lloyd better dig himself a foxhole."
He flipped the sheet over. Delpha Wade's discharge from Gatesville: April 7, 1973. Five foot six, 120 pounds. Hair brown, eyes blue. Thirty-four. Voluntary manslaughter.
"Only paper around," she said.
Phelan laid a ten on the desk. "Get some. Then see what's up in the Toups's neighborhood, say, the last three months. Thought this was a kid pushing weed for pocket money, but could be dirtier water." He told her what Georgia Watson had given him: the D name, Don or Darrell, and that Ricky brought other boys over to the guy's house to party. "I'm guessing Georgia might've pitched in with that."
Delpha met his eyes for a second. Then, without comment, she flipped through the phone book while he went to his office, got the .38 out of a drawer, and loaded it. Glanced out the window. New Rosemont's ancient proprietress, the one the fan had gonged, rag in hand, smearing dirty circles on a window.
When he came out, Delpha had the phone book open to the city map section. "Got a cross directory?" she asked.
Phelan went back and got it from his office. "Run through the —"
"Newspaper's police blotter."
"Right. Down at the —"
"Library," she said. She left, both books hugged to her chest.
Just another girl off to school.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lone Star Noir"
Copyright © 2010 Akashic Books.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART I: GULF COAST TEXAS,
Lisa Sandlin Beaumont Phelan's First Case,
Claudia Smith Galveston Catgirl,
David Corbett & Luis Alberto Urrea Port Arthur Who Stole My Monkey?,
Tim Tingle Ellington AFB Six Dead Cabbies,
PART II: BACK ROADS TEXAS,
James Crumley Crumley, Texas Luck,
Jessica Powers Andrews Preacher's Kid,
Joe R. Lansdale Gladewater Six-Finger Jack,
George Wier Littlefield Duckweed,
Milton T. Burton Tyler Cherry Coke,
PART III: BIG CITY TEXAS,
Sarah Cortez Houston Montgomery Clift,
Jesse Sublett Austin Moral Hazard,
Dean James Dallas Bottomed Out,
Ito Romo San Antonio Crank,
Bobby Byrd El Paso The Dead Man's Wife,
About the Contributors,