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Black Mask

The Butcherbirds of Twelfth Street
by Matt Coleman

Outside the thin, rattling door of the camper trailer, winter and spring were having a cuss fight. Rain spit against a plastic window and a chill coated the walls and crept in around Ellis Mazer. Neither the threadbare blanket he bought from the Goodwill or the bottle of bourbon he’d picked up off clearance at the Party Factory had enough left to break the shivering cold. Ellis closed one eye and craned his neck, finding one window left open. He considered getting up to close it, but opted to light a cigaret instead, blowing the smoke up through the opening into the rain.

Either someone was knocking at the door or the wind was rattling the loose window. But before Ellis could decide, The Drew came barreling through the door shaking his lanky arms and legs like an Irish Wolfhound. “St. Elmo’s Fire, Maze Dog. It’s pissing rain out there and cold as balls.” He stopped and glanced around, wrinkling up his nose and brushing water off his paunch of a stomach protruding from the otherwise stretched six-and-a-half-foot frame. “What fresh hell is this, El-gonquin’s Maze Table? It smells like you’ve been putting out cigarets in buttholes.”

Ellis rolled his eyes. “Well, to be fair, I didn’t invite you in.”

The Drew laughed to himself, craning his head to one side to keep from brushing the ceiling. “Seriously though, Maze Runner. Did something die of alcohol poisoning in here? It’s like,” he sniffed, wafting with one hand, “bour­bon and old lunchmeat. Or garbage came to life and developed a serious drinking problem.”

Ellis pointed around The Drew at the door with his cigaret. “You can leave.”

The Drew waved off the suggestion. “Ah, I’ll tough it out.”

This happened once a week or so. Andrew “The Drew” Andrews had been Ellis Mazer’s boss when Ellis taught seventh grade for a semester. Although The Drew still worked as an assistant principal and Ellis hadn’t taught anywhere in over a year, the two had stayed in touch due to their work on local crimes. Ellis wrote about them. The Drew fancied himself a private investigator on the side. While the two would argue over who might be the Robin and who the Bat­man, they were clear partners. But ever since Ellis got divorced, The Drew came by more as a welfare check than working a case.

The Drew leaned against the tiny sink in what served as the camper’s kitchen. “Got a ripe one, El Train.”

Ellis shook his head around a drag. “Nope. Told you, I’m not working right now.”

The Drew shook his head even harder than Ellis. “Naw, Maze Dog. That may have worked for a few months, but it’s time to get back on the Harley, El­sy Rider. Gotta get out there and breathe a little.”

Ellis started something, but The Drew held out a hand. “Got an old girl in Ruddy Creek who misplaced her boyfriend.”

Ellis mumbled, “Don’t care.”

“Now, Maze, come on! This is a missing person. Easy, Maze! Cake job. And she thinks he’s just getting hung up by some old neighbors. Shared a condo with them when they lived in town. And hear me out, Maze. The girl works the front desk at UPS. I know you’ve got a contact over there. You gotta hook me up, Maze Dog. Help me out here.”

Ellis held the cigaret with pursed lips and dug in the couch cushions with both hands until he came out with a cell phone. He waggled it at The Drew. “I’ll give you a number.”

The Drew sighed heavily, his body slumping. “Come on, J.D. Ellinger. I’m trying my damnedest here. We gotta get you out of this tin can.”

Ellis stared at his cigaret, thumping bits of ash off its tip. “Well, don’t worry about it. I’ve got a,” he cocked his head and shrugged one shoulder up, “a case, I’d guess you’d call it.”

The Drew frowned down at Ellis with crossed arms. “A case?”

Ellis nodded, still staring at the floor. “Yeah. Remember the Tick Wadsworth story?”

The Drew frowned and rubbed the side of his face. “Got shot over on Twelfth Street? Few months back?”

Ellis nodded. “Almost a year. His niece or cousin or something came to see me. I told her I’d look into it.”

The Drew’s frown morphed into a snarl. “You told her you’d look into it?”

Ellis shrugged. “Well, no. I told her she had the wrong trailer. But, you know,” he rolled his head around and waved a cigaret in the air, “I’ll look into it.”

Although The Drew proved sceptical of the lie, he did eventually slump out the door and back into the rain. Ellis peered out his blinds as The Drew drove his beat-up Toyota truck out the gravel drive and parked conspicuously on some vacant land across the way. Letting the blinds slap shut, Ellis mumbled to himself, “Crap.” He dropped the cigaret butt into his cup-of-coffee ashtray and sighed at the realization that he was about to have to sell his lie.

Ellis had a couple of friends who worked in law enforcement. And while none of them had heard from him in over a year, one or two would still answer a text message. One even agreed to meet at a bar in downtown Texarkana. In the rain, no less. Rondo Singer had thirty years or so on the job. He’d started out in the mid eighties after every attempt to make it as a professional running back fell victim to his five-foot-nothing stature. At sixty, the man still looked like he could bowl over a couple of linebackers and outrun a decent defensive back, even if he did have a bit of a middle and some gray in his goatee.

Ellis posted up at the Arrow Bar, downing a couple of shots before ordering a beer. He pushed the empty shot glasses far off to one side before Rondo came strutting through the door. The police detective knew everyone in Texarkana. He wore polo-style shirts in mostly pastel colors tucked tight into dark slacks and either a fedora or a pageboy cap. Wore it like a uniform. When he showed up at the Arrow Bar, the shirt was robin’s-egg blue and the fedora had a matching stripe. He shucked a black trench coat as he spoke to five peo­ple at once. A waitress took his coat without having to be asked, and Rondo added the hat with a flirty grin. The dim lights of the bar reflected off his brown head like a halo. The man demanded the attention of everyone in the bar except Ellis, who stared at his beer. He didn’t need to turn around to know he was about to get slapped hard on the shoulder.

“Ellis Mazer, back from the dead,” Rondo sang into an ear.

The bartender pointed at Rondo, to which Rondo nodded out a yep and sent the man to pouring a beer and prepping a short whiskey to go with it. Ellis flashed a painful-looking smile over the shoulder Rondo still gripped. “Thanks for meeting me so late, Rondo.”

Rondo sat on a stool close to Ellis and snarled a lip, shaking his head. “Nah. Don’t thank me. You ain’t been out of that nasty trailer in months. Least I could do to get you breathing some fresh air.”

Ellis laughed and nodded. “You’ve obviously been—”

Rondo laughed. “Drew and I grab a beer every now and then.” He patted a hand on the bar between them. “Look, Mazer. I get it. Better believe I do. Heartbreak ain’t nothing to trifle with, man. But hey—” he downed his whiskey and reached for the beer without having to look back as the bar­tender placed it in front of him “—divorce gets a helluva lot easier round ’bout number three or so.” He followed a sip of beer by guffawing at his own joke.

After a beat, Ellis finally joined him laughing, drawn in by Rondo’s conta­gious energy. They went on to chat over a couple of rounds, talking about the split between Ellis and Dodie, with Rondo offering helpful anecdotes of his own romantic failures. The cop was good at it. The stories were self-deprecat­ing and would make anybody feel better about their own situation. But on beer number three, Ellis started to feel a heaviness of both eyelids and lips and decided to shift the conversation while he could still remember it. “So you remember the Tick Wadsworth case?”

Rondo grew serious and nodded. “Yeah, I do. Yeah, I do.” He eyed Ellis. “Not my case. That’s important to mention. Not my case, Ellis. So this here—” he pointed back and forth between their faces “—this ain’t happening. Got me?” Ellis nodded for him to continue. “Look, you know I’m not always a fan of amateur hour and all this armchair-detective bullshit y’all like to run around doing.”

Ellis huffed and shrugged. “Yeah, I know. So what makes this any dif­ferent?”

Rondo cocked his head. “This one’s weird, man. Best I can tell, not a dang thing has moved in that case since it happened. Not one dang thing.”

Ellis nodded. “So what do you know?”

Rondo shook his head. “Not much. I know Tick Wadsworth is a ghost. Couldn’t locate much history on him. No family or friends. The man didn’t even live in that house. He was squatting in it.”

Ellis frowned. “Wait. No family? I had a girl come to me who said she was his niece, I think.”

Rondo made a sour face. “Well, she’s been living under a rock, then. ’Cause we scoured the earth looking for anybody connected to the man. Came up with nothing.”

Ellis chuckled. “All right. So then what made you so eager to meet me? If you don’t have anything to give me?”

Rondo grinned. “Well, I didn’t say all that. I may have something. Just don’t know what it means. Like I said, not my case. So I got no clue what they were looking for, but the detectives working it spent a minute looking at some sur­veillance tapes. Now, I don’t think they found what they were looking for, but something about the whole situation made me wonder if there ain’t still some­thing there. Let’s call it a cop hunch.”

Ellis nodded, frowning. “Okay. I’ll trust your hunch. But what surveillance? It was a house, right? There were cameras at the house?”

Rondo’s grin grew wider. “No. Not the house. But Twelfth, you know, is right around the corner from somewhere with a camera that points at the street.”

Ellis hung his head and nodded. “The vocational school. The corner of the high school has a camera covering the front doors. Points at the corner of—”

“Jefferson and Twelfth.” Rondo smiled. He closed one eye. “Ellis, you know anybody who works over at the high school? Might could get you those tapes?”

Ellis didn’t look up. He closed his eyes and sighed.

Rondo leaned closer. “Remind me, Ellis. What’s your ex-wife do?”

Ellis and Dodie Mazer spent almost twelve years together, nine years and three days of which married. They had two kids, which Dodie dangled in her ex-husband’s face in an effort to encourage him out of his postdivorce funk. Neither of the girls had ever seen the trailer Ellis lived in. He managed to clean himself up most weekends and spend some time with them at his par­ents’ house.

Ellis pulled into a corner parking spot in front of the south end of Arkansas High School. Dodie served as the secretary for this end of campus, which housed vocational classes. Ellis leaned forward and peered up at a camera mounted on the edge of the building, catching the walkway leading up to the door, but also picking up the corner of Jefferson and Twelfth Street, a mere two blocks east of where Tick Wadsworth was shot. A UPS truck had pulled up and parked on the wide sidewalk in front of the door. Ellis had to edge his way around it to ring the buzzer.

The door clicked and Ellis pulled it open to the sound of laughter coming from the office. He recognized both laughs. One was Dodie’s, and the other belonged to Romeo Valentine, the driver of the UPS truck and one of maybe four or five people Ellis counted as a friend. Romeo had come to Ellis to help a relative accused of murdering a girl in the Texarkana College library. And, like The Drew, Romeo enjoyed the hunt a little—continued doing a little work with Ellis on cases ever since.

After navigating through some student traffic in the hallway, Ellis stepped into the office. Romeo leaned over Dodie, his lanky six-foot-three-inch frame draped over the counter as both of them laughed at some story he told for what had to be the fifth or sixth time. Ellis picked up enough to recognize it and finished Romeo’s sentence along with him, “ . . . and I still got that dog to this day.”

They both turned and looked at Ellis, who hung in the doorway with a look of utter disdain. Romeo smacked his tongue against his teeth. “What? I’m not supposed to talk to her either?”

Dodie snickered and Ellis shrugged. “You can talk to anybody you want.”

Romeo nodded. “I know I can.” He cocked his head and pointed at Ellis. “Speaking of which, did you send that big hillbilly ape to my work?”

Ellis frowned. “The Drew? He already knew where you work. I didn’t send him anywhere.”

Romeo clucked his tongue again and dismissed Ellis with a wave of a hand. “Bull, Mazer. That dude went to you first. I know he did. And you couldn’t be bothered to make a phone call, so I gotta talk to that dude at my job.” He pulled a torn yellow slip of paper out of a pocket. “Tell him the girl’s boyfriend drives a beat-up truck with a hood that’s nothing but primer. Can’t miss it. But just in case he can, because, you know,” Romeo closed one eye and tapped a temple, then studied the slip of paper.

Ellis waved both hands in front of his face and shook his head. “That’s all Drew, man. I’m not telling him all this. You call him. It’s not my case”

Romeo sighed. “Come on, Mazer. You know I don’t want to call that man. Just—”

Ellis put fingers in his ears and mumbled, “Nope. Nope, nope, nope. Not my case.”

Romeo leaned toward Ellis, reading from his note, “DEA 747. Easy to remember and repeat.” He shoved the slip of paper into the front pocket of Ellis’s blazer. “I’m gonna go get your boxes,” Romeo tossed back to Dodie as he scrambled for the door.

Ellis took the note from his pocket and wadded it, turning to throw it at Romeo. But when he found Romeo already gone, he sighed and shoved the wad back into his pocket.

Dodie drummed fingers on her desk. “Please don’t tell me you can’t take the girls this weekend. I am exhausted.”

Ellis turned and stepped to the counter, shaking his head. “No, no. I’m still good. I’m actually here on a job.”

Dodie raised her eyebrows and leaned back. “Really?” She pointed toward the door. “I thought you said—”

Ellis waved it off. “Different job. Do you remember letting the police look at some camera footage?”

Dodie wrinkled her face up. “From the back lot? The one that catches the park across the street where those kids spray-painted that statue?”

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2022 The Butcherbirds of Twelfth Street by Matt Coleman

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