The Muffin Man

The Muffin Man



And the Holy Son said: Ye shall not eat of the wheat of the fields, nor of the fruit of the vine. The kernel that grows on the ear of corn, nor the bean that springs from the ground; these are forbidden to you. Look upon the other nations and rejoice, for thou art of Mine, and so shall ye be eternal.”

Texas is even hotter than you read about in the summertime, and when you’re running a van full of bootleg bread you sweat twice as much. Just take my word for it. I don’t know what smells worse, the yeast in the fresh-baked contraband or the sweat decorating my armpits. When you’re into it for around hour number five, it gets to where you can’t even tell the difference.

I was headed to Dallas out of Kansas, which everyone knows is a hotbed for bootleg bakers. Most of the cops turn and look the other way. Sometimes all it takes is cash, sometimes it’s even easier. A few cartons of my payload keeps them in hog heaven for a long time. Donuts, muffins, you name it. I never met a Breadbuster than wasn’t a closet muffin junkie.

Yeah, I know, that’s not the PC thing to say, but Bun Runners aren’t the PC types, or we wouldn’t be Bun Runners in the first place.

Personally, I never touch the stuff. I’m not a religious man, and I’ve had my share of fresh baked brownies, napoleons, toast, you name it. When I was a kid there was this geek next door named Steve who was always eating vegetables. The green ones mainly, as you probably already guessed. A few of the kids were passing around seeds of corn at recess, and I ended up with a few. I gave them to Steve and a few months later, his parents got a visit from the cops. His Dad got out of jail a month later and they moved away. A few of the other kids tried to make me out as the bad guy. Within a couple fo months, they were in the Big Oven themselves. Felony charges, First Degree Gluten Distribution. Hey, I didn’t make the market. But it always seemed to take care of me. Who was I to argue?

By fifteen I was running oven parts and fertilizer for the Big Boys. You know, Wonder and Orowheat. And then there were the “Mitts”. Mrs. Baird, Bimbo of the Southwest and purveyor of fine glutens. I met her once and yeah, she was as much of a bitch as everyone says. Of course, when she was on her knees with a fresh baked jelly roll jammed between her gums, she was as nice as they come. Aunt Jemima on the other hand, well, trust me you don’t want a picture like that in your head cuz you’ll never get it out. Who needs such things in their lives? Not me. Not me.

The Big Boys – and the Mitts – they all knew they could depend on me to get the job done and keep my mouth shut. The money was good and the women were everywhere. I don’t know if it was the money or the smell of fresh baked muffins on my hands, and I didn’t much care. I lived quietly like a king. And I made people happy in the process. Gave them something they craved and always thanked me for. I thought it would never end. Was I ever wrong.

Like I said, I was on my way from Wichita to Dallas in a bakery van made up to look like a U-Haul with this picture of Colorado or some shit on the side. My stop was a boot factory just south of downtown that smelled of leather. Yeah, right. Boots. More like brownies in the back room.

My cell phone went off as I was on my last mile in a town called Everman. There was an old Mrs. Bairds plant right off the freeway where they gave tours. The gift shop sold samples of all kinds of baked goods which, of course, were all made of rubber. The proceeds went to Wheatbelly Rehab, but every time I passed the place I could swear I smelled fresh baked bread. All in my head of course, although I wouldn’t put it past the ballsy bitch. I answered the phone.

“PW”, I said. “What can I do you for?”

The voice on the other end purred like a kitten who’d been stuffing herself with sin. It was Sarah “Ray” Lee. And that was never good news.

“How’re you doing, Big Boy”, she asked rhetorically, sounding like Mae West on crack. Her voice was soft and hard at the same time. She always liked to keep you guessing, but I knew which was the real Sarah Lee.

“Doing great now that I’m hearing your voice”, I answered sarcastically.

“You always knew how to butter me up”, she said. She loved throwing in the bread puns. Like what she was doing was some kind of big joke. I wasn’t laughing.

“OK beautiful, cough it up. I’m on a job.” Sometimes letting her know I wasn’t afraid of her murdering ass was the only way I could stay safe. It was, of course, a lie. Sarah Lee was a damn nightmare. Even the Wheatbellies were afraid of her.

“Yeah sweet buns, I know. A few thousand loaves to feed the fishies. Me and Mrs. Baird, we got a thing going. That job you’re doing now is ours. Two in a pack.” She giggled like a drunken school girl in a plaid skirt and no underwear. This school girl had blood on her hands.

“And I’m sure you want me to deliver these babies while they’re still warm and fresh. So cut to it, sweet woman. How can I be of service?” There was the butter. It was part of why I was still alive.

“Well, like I said, me and Amanda” – by Amanda she meant Mrs. Baird, the Alice Capone of the Breadbasket Belt – “some’s been adding something bad to the product over the past six months and its hurting business. I need someone like you, someone I trust, to go inside and find out what the stuff is and who’s polluting our good names.” Ray was a psychopathic criminal but she was a purist.  It was one of the few things I once respected about her. I used to think she was proud of her product, like Walter White’s imaginary blue crystal meth, that in my naïve and romantic view of the world there was a flec of humanity to what we all saw as a sociopathic monster. Later I learned it wasn’t so much a passion for the perfect baked good as it was her reputation. Quality stuff commanded a premium. It was always all about the money. I remember feeling disappointed. And stupid. Very, very stupid.

Of course she wasn’t asking. Damn it. I knew how that worm felt because I started to squirm. You didn’t tell Miss Ray ‘No’. Not if you liked breathing.

“You start Monday so enjoy the weekend. The details are in your email. Unless you’d like me to personally deliver it. If I remember right, Minneapolis last year wasn’t it, you always enjoyed sticking your head deep inside a piping hot oven.” I shuddered and gulped. The Bitch laughed and hung up.

Chapter 2

Everything was there when I got to the motel. It was a two story seedy place, almost 100 years old I guessed, painted sea green and cream with paint cracking everywhere.  My room was upstairs. I’d already dropped my load at a clothing factory on Young and Ervay just south of town, but I’d sill waited for a parking place that was right in front of my door. Even with an empty truck, I felt better putting it out front where I could see it.

The room was dark with an old air conditioner that worked way too good built into the wall below the window. Even though it was old the place had a little kitchenette with a small table, a basket of warm freshly baked cookies on top like an irresistible bowl of Sin created by Mom. Like I said, Ray had a sense of humor.
A full sized refrigerator stocked with groceries and a stove made the place look like home. I usually didn’t stay long, but I like preparing my own meals even if it’s just for a night. Now I was glad. It looked like I was going to be staying longer than I’d planned.

If I could say one positive thing about Ray, she’s well connected. Before I even got to the place, there was a plastic key card and a lanyard with a badge hooked to it. The picture put me about five years younger but who was I to complain? As to how she knew where I was staying, I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to know. Like I said, the bitch scared me. Even after a long weekend locked in a fancy hotel in downtown Minneapolis, her heart was harder than a week old loaf of stale Texas Toast. If she had a heart.

I sometimes wondered why she did it. I mean, she could light her cigars with hundred dollar bills if she wanted. Cohibas if I remember correctly. Was it the competition? I know she loved getting the best of her peers. Personally, I think she’s just a bit of a sadist. You know, one of those psychopaths that just enjoy being what they are. They just seem to wrap themselves up in the role until they’re enjoying it for so long, being an outsider and having all that power, that they just become the role, like losing themselves and becoming an archetype. Hell, maybe it was just the money. Either way, I was going to work Monday morning in Dallas, because she’d said so.

I took a quick shower to wash away the sweat and any wheat smells that may have stuck to me. Like I said, I don’t use but I am dangerously careful. I plopped my pale ass down on the scratchy love seat the motel so graciously provided, and tried to get comfortable watching a movie. Just something to take my mind off of where I was and why.  In the end, though, it didn’t much matter.

I rolled the plastic badge over in my hand, looking at the photo. I couldn’t remember who took it or when, but I was looking directly into the camera. And I was smiling. I looked to be around 25 or so. Which would make sense because that was the last time I remember smiling like that.

They’d used my real name, too. Paul Edward Wise. I guess when you’re an invisible asset, you can get away with a certain degree of honesty. At least it didn’t say Peewee.

Sure, I had a record, but that record usually ended up getting lost. One of the benefits I’d come to taking for granted. An arrest for trafficking that would have gotten someone less connected a minimum of 10 years in the Federal Playpen. In my case, the case got dismissed on some kind of technicality no one told me about. When I tried to look at the case on line, I learned it had disappeared. Score one for the bad guys. Yay.

I wasn’t paying attention to what was on TV. Some old Bogart movie, The Big Sleep I think.  I couldn’t watch it. Bacall was just too familiar. A tiny voice in my head was telling me to jump in the truck and head back to Dodge. Which for me was actually St. Louis. Maybe change my name. Get plastic surgery and find a nice girl and have a family for a few paranoid but happy years. A larger voice came through and kicked the living shit out of the tiny voice and sent it packing. The imaginary head attached to the voice shook back and forth like a bobble head and asked me if I was out of my mind.  A vision which I tried not to think about, two Wise Guys named Phillips and Birney, hanging like old clothes from a traffic light in Howard Beach, Queens. I saw the red light come on, right through a giant hole that used to be Andy Phillips face. Your picture here, said Big Voice. Hell, all I wanted to be was a courier. Somebody who was invisible with a lot of money. It seems that was a self-destroying dream.

I sighed, got dressed and walked down to the EZ Shop on the corner and bought a pack of MJs. I was tired of thinking. I had the whole weekend to think. Thinking is usually one of my favorite pass times. It involves no manual labor and you can take your work with you. When it involved thinking about things you’d rather not do but had to, it became an unpleasant chore. I wished I was out on the road in my truck full of gluten and a cute redhead next to me. Instead, it was going to be Motel Hell and frequent reportings in to one of my least favorite sociopaths.

The Craziness, which is what I call it, it started a couple of years before I was born.  The Wheatbelly bill, part of what they call Prohibition 2.0, got passed at the end of the second decade. The actual name of the three thousand or so page law was the Consumers Dry Goods & Cholesterol Health Protection Act. More and more people were getting sick. Gluten intolerance they first called it. Celiacs was exploding, no pun intended, giving diabetes a run for its money. Then the two disorders got linked, and they were having an epidemic. President Stein declared a national emergency. A few months later Congress nearly unanimously passed Wheatbelly, Suddenly possession became a crime and I had a career. What’s not to like?

That was thirty years ago. Science came up with substitutes, a few of which got the law’s stamp of approval. And coincidently, were partially owned by trusts linked to the same legislators that gave them the rubber stamp. Follow the money.

The substitutes had names like Un-Bread and Glutagon, and anyone who’d had the real thing would have spit the shit out on the first bite. But it was only the users that knew the difference, and most of them lived on the fringe and were not going to be testifying on CSPAN any time soon. No doubt, I’d heard about wealthy, powerful individuals who used, but it was one of those things people didn’t really talk about. But the real thing was so damn good that prices went to the moon. Especially fresh baked. You wanted fresh baked, you paid double, sometimes more depending on whose it was and a bunch of other things.

Me, I’m apolitical. You wanna destroy your body stuffing it with gluten and white sugar, be my guest. Its a free country, right? All I am is a courier. I don’t bake the shit, I just deliver it. And when I do, they are always happy to see me. It’s almost a high in itself, you know?

The downside, of course, was living in a world with people like Jemima, who’d once been a man named Billy, and Amanda Baird, whose real name was Ninnie. All greedy, soul-less people who lived only for themselves. Popular legend portrayed them as fearless outlaws, Robin Hoods with vaginas. I knew them for what they really were. Ruthless cowards that couldn’t even spell the word honor. I remember getting a blowjob from Amanda one time and how I kept looking at her, afraid she was going to do something crazy. I had to tell her it wasn’t her, it was me not having slept for three days. I couldn’t have slept if I wanted to, though. One eye open wouldn’t be enough.

Still, this was the life I knew. The life I’d chosen. My parents were both clean. They never knew about my choices. They thought I was a delivery driver, and though they’d hoped I’d be more, they knew I was a happy guy. Neither of them took notice of how much I was earning. The Armani suits and the Rolexes. They were poor depression Jews from Hell’s Kitchen and the ghettos of Europe. They wouldn’t know a Rolex from a Rolodex.

The people that got the most respect in my neighborhood were Gluten Guys. They all had money. And respect. I wanted to be in that club. I’m short, you see. Just 5′ 3, and, well, it’s hard to command respect when you’re that size, even if you walk to school with blood on your hands every day. I was never much of a fighter and I was bored having to prove myself after school every day with the next goon in line with a Spiderman lunch box. One of my friends knew someone who was connected, and by the time I was 12 I was running BPs, delivering to teachers and God knows everyone else in town. I was part of a secret that wasn’t really a secret. I was the elephant in the room and people were lined up to feed me more than peanuts.  Suddenly the jocks wanted to be my friend instead of meeting me after school to take their turns getting the shit beat out of them. Girls in class started noticing me in ways I’d only imagined when I looked through the pornos I used to steal from my Uncle Sam. (He was going blind so he didn’t miss them. If you saw his wife, well, let’s just say his affliction was poetry in real life.) And of course my B grades magically turned into As without me having to get any smarter or engage in that nasty four letter word that starts with ‘W’.

It took some time for me to shake off my “nice guy” programming. Five or six years, really. I got burned several times and in every aftermath my skin grew thicker. But all the nice guy stuff paid off because I got the reputation of being one of the Good Bad Guys. Whatever the hell that means. All I knew was, it meant something to people who I’d never met, maybe shouldn’t have ever met. And when I did, they offered me a job. One that I couldn’t say no to if I wanted to. Which honestly was not the case. And that’s why I’m here in this seedy motel room outside of downtown Dallas today. There’s other stuff in between but I think that’s all you really need to know.

Chapter 3

I loved impersonating a cop. I’d known a lot of cops over the years. A few – very few – even became friends. As much as anyone can be a friend in this business, because deep down you knew that’s where your bullet was going to come from.

So I knew how to behave, how to walk and talk when I walked in to this beautiful granite building in downtown Dallas wearing a new navy suit and a matching tie. I showed my ID to security and she gave me a big Texas smile and pointed me towards Orientation. “I’ll validate you on the way out.”, she said with a smile. I wanted to smile back and tip my hat, but I wasn’t wearing one. I was just Paul Wise from the St. Louis PD. I knew Sara Ray had taken care of things up there. She was always so damn thorough. Which one day could be a bad thing, but not today.

Orientation was just an office with a blackboard and uncomfortable red plastic chairs. And a Detective and an administrator who looked like a lawyer with a gun. I can’t say why but it was dislike at first sight.

They got up and we all shook hands when I entered the room. The cop said he was Detective Sam Ross, Homicide Division, and Mr. Lawyer, whose hand felt like a newly drained salamander fresh from the fridge, was Officer Fred Murchison from IAD. We were about the same age and he wore a suit just like mine. Maybe that was why I didn’t like him. Copycat sonufabitch.

Detective Ross motioned for me to sit.

“I’ll cut to the chase, Detective”. Oh, so I was a detective, was I? Good to know. Sara Ray left that one out. On purpose, I’m sure. She was probably laughing about it right about now. No doubt she could have been watching if she’d wanted to.  “Two weeks ago, Officer Takenya Jones answered a call to investigate an odd smell coming from behind the Third Dimension apartment complex on Grand. The details are in the report.” He pushed a fat manila file across the table and into my loving anxious hands. The Detective liked drama. Good to know. “She found a Wheatbelly lying in the weeds in an alley behind the building. She’d been dead for about a week.” I noticed Murchison’s face go white as he looked at an 8 by 10. He shook his head slightly, as if trying to throw the image out of his find. Pussy.

I raised my eyebrows at Ross as if to say, Is that it?

“It wasn’t Gluten Intolerance,” he began, preempting me and holding up a well-manicured, almost feminine hand. “Half her mind was gone. Literally. No gunshot wounds, nothing physical.  The next day we got the autopsy report.  Her kidneys, too. The stuff that makes them work on a microscopic level, exploded like little sticks of dynamite.”

“So she was on something weird”, I said. “What makes her so important?”

“Because in the past three weeks there have been seven others. All in different parts of the city”, said Ross flatly. “No history of Celiacs. All users for at least the past five years. One was a junkie for almost 20. Breadcrumbs under her fingernails deeper n’shit.”

“You think someone spiked their junk?”

“Dunno”, Ross replied, and gave me a terse grin. “I suppose that’s where you’re supposed to come in. I’m told you’re the expert.” He picked up a few papers up off his desk. I could tell they were embossed. “You seem to come highly recommended. The department’s resources are at your disposal.” He cocked an eye at me as if to ask ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ Just your friendly neighborhood bread runner, I thought, and smiled with as little condescension as I could muster under the circumstances.

Ross wasn’t the only one who wasn’t happy to see me. I felt like a Hassidic Jew in a small Texas village, where being called a xenophobe was a compliment if they knew what it meant or how to spell it. Up til now, the feeling was mutual. I’d much prefer to be on the road on my way to the next drop with a Roll Muncher’s lips around my breadstick.  If it weren’t for Ray’s familiarity with some of my other talents, that’s exactly where I’d be. But now, the blue suits were starting to piss me off.  I was beginning to take my new role a bit more enthusiasm.

Ross, ever the hidden elitist, had a uniform show me to my office. It was a closet on the third floor that was old fashioned in the way that lead paint is thought of as nostalgic. The building was being vacated for a sterile new one just south of town across from Poor David’s Pub and a bunch of artsy fartsy rehabs and overpriced barbeque joints. Boxes filled with afterthoughts were piled up along the walls, almost blocking the room’s one window. Two desks were pushed together in the middle of the room. My mother had been there, I’d swear to it.

Each desk had an ugly black desk phone and a computer that had seen better days. The desk closest to the door was mine. I didn’t like it because my back would be facing the door. Old habits die hard and with good reason. At the other desk sat my new partner, a gorgeous uniform who looked to be in her late 20’s by the name of Officer Davis if her badge was to be believed. She had the smile of an angel and her eyes. Well, somewhere in the woods Bambi was stumbling around blind with two holes in her skull and it was thanks to the very coal black and very pretty Officer Tamikah Davis.

Levy did the honors and introduced us. Davis offered me a smile that would bring some men hope. All I saw was ice and death beyond cold. Not the kind of cold that Ray was, one that had been gradually acquired, fed by idealism and tears. Bambi must have been blinded in the snow because I somehow knew this was a someone who’d seen the wet and malodorous hairy sides up close and had a tough time deciding which one she liked the best. My kind of girl. Beauty and ice. Again dammit. My mother didn’t know how lucky she was having no grandchildren.

We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. Levy left the room and I sat down at my new home away from home. There was a small envelope with my passcodes. I looked at Brown and raised my eyebrows as if to ask, “You’ve got to be kidding, right?”. I waited for a glimpse of humanity that never showed up. Then I exhaled. There was a terse smile but that was all. Maybe I was right, humanity had left the building. Nah, from what I’d seen so far, security wouldn’t let it get three feet from the front door without shooting it full of holes. Welcome to Dallas.

I looked over the pass codes and logged in to my account. All the cases were there. I began looking them over, one by one, learning the details well enough so that the victims and witnesses might be considered parts of a big dysfunctional family that rarely communicated with each other except when they needed drugs.

The connections were there, almost too obvious. They’d all died of organ failure that ended in the kidneys shutting down. Not quick but more like a slow turning of the water supply valve on your toilet. It was slow and painful. Until everything exploded and you filled up with poison and passed out from the pain.

Some of the dead didn’t have lungs left. Brain damage in each case, but to differing degrees.  Where the Syndicate fit in I didn’t know, but it was obvious why my split tailed benefactor and her wheatey blue minions were so concerned. Was someone trying to muscle in on their business? Death was bad for business even if you did have an endless stream of hungry carborated clients ready to pollute themselves with deadly snacks. Maybe a nutcase trying to shut them down? It’s not like it hadn’t happened before but that kind of thing usually turned out to be political: one lone nut job where everyone was looking for a conspiracy. In my case, I was looking for at least two. nutcases or conspiracies or maybe both, I didn’t know. What I did know was that Ray would have my balls on display in her museum if I didn’t get this handled fast. Not like I wasn’t enjoying myself.

I figured my first angle would be to find out where they were all getting their junk from. Was it all one brand or all one source, that would be a good place to start.

Later, as I got to know her a bit better, it frightened me how Davis seemed to be able to read my mind. In fact, it scared the shit out of me. If she was some kind of weird empath, and supposedly the Gluten was supposed to cause that in a very tiny fraction of the cases where it didn’t just kill you, well, then I really was going to have to kill her. Strike two. A Lesbian empath. I hoped Strike Three wouldn’t be me.

I’d glanced up to ask her the question. She caught my glance and said “No.”

“Okay”, I nodded, accepting the fact that she knew what I was thinking. And I responded, “Yeah, I know.”

“Well then, just so you don’t waste your time trying anything.” She smiled and looked really pretty. What a waste.

“OK, then fill me in. Where are we? What’s next?”
“Y’all are supposed to be the Golden Boy. I should be asking you that.”
“Well, seeing that I’ve been lucky enough to have just stepped into this huge file of I don’t know what the fuck, maybe you can help me out.”
The fucking bitch, she giggled just like a little school girl with a hard on. She knew what she was doing.
“ All different suppliers. Each one different and each one the same. All died from renal failure in the end. We thought maybe ergot because of the renal failure but there was none around. And ergot takes a while so there’d be something somewhere. All those bodies.”

I thought for a second I’d caught a glimpse of humanity. Then I heard a noise and knew it was only gas.

“I figure this is something new. I don’t much know the reason for it and nor do I care. The world is better off without the scum. Someone’s doing humanity and the citizens of this great city a service.” I looked at her and cocked by head like a puppy. “Hey, I do my job, personal feelings aside. Just sayin’. Anyways, I’m thinking it’s someone or some group that’s pissed off at the Cartel. Which isn’t a hard thing to imagine considering about how they operate these days.”
“You question anybody?”
“Not me, no, but there haven’t been any real arrests. Anyone low enough on the totem pole they don’t know shit. I talked with the detectives that interrogated them and as far as they knew, it was regular shit.”
“Was it something else, then?”

This time she cocked her head. I tried not to smile.

“Well, we’re all assuming it was the junk that did this. Maybe it was something else.”
“You mean something not added to the junk?”
“Yeah. Ross said there were no connections. And I can’t find any here in the files. But that doesn’t mean its not there. And it doesn’t mean that whatever it was came in the gluten. I’m assuming you haven’t picked up any weird batches, right?” Jones nodded.
“Nothing”, she said.
“And the junkies were all in different parts of town. One a Highland Park housewife. And the rest just a bunch of south side whores and wasteoids. I wonder if we should be looking at the difference rather than the similarities.”
“Ahead of you Detective. No connections that we could find.”
“Just the same, I’d like to talk to her family.”
“Good luck with that. Her family threw her out three years ago when they found out she was using. Wanted nothing to do with her. Her old man divorced her when he found out about it. A straight laced religious type, too.” I opened my mouth to say something. Jones smirked and said “He checks out.”
Just the same, I made a mental note to look into that part of it myself. I didn’t trust the rich. They almost always had blood on their hands. If you added in religion blood and violence was a guarantee. I opened the file again and looked again at the pictures. Some of them were gruesome. Others were mundane. Somewhere in there was a clue. I had time while we waited for the next one. I’d read this book before. There was always a next one.

Chapter Four

The next one came on Tuesday. Lucky me. I hated waiting.

I was surprised that I hadn’t heard from my dainty employer but I was sure she’d be calling in to check in with me soon enough. Maybe this next one was my chance to get this thing over with and go back on the road. Despite the precious sight of Tamika Jones swaying hips, I wanted out of here.

This one wasn’t just a Gluten freak, she was also a Lipid Lover. I could tell by the white mustache and the cheesy froth that spilled out of one side of her lips. Her blank eyes stared wide and without life at the cheap popcorn ceiling, like there was something she’d seen in the quirky plaster ridges and felt compelled to leave her body to get to know it better. Her kidneys, though, bloody and ruptured, disagreed. You could see the bruising and bleeding on her naked hips. The MEs report confirmed the kidney damage and the brain loss.

In her bed and shivering in fear was a man who looked to be in his late fifties, overweight and half naked. He had salt and paper hair and his face was had enough sun damage to hint that he’d once had an easy, pudgy life on a beautiful beach somewhere. Detective Ross and one of his underlings was doing a Bad Cop-Bad Cop on the guy and it looked like it was working. The guy was obviously scared shitless. Ross motioned me over with a pair of Donald Trump sized, well-manicured fingers. Condescending sonofabitch. I wondered what he had in mind.

This is Detective Wiseguy. We all like to call him Peewee.
Shit, the bastard knew who I was. No doubt he was on Ray’s payroll. “Like this should be a surprise?”, a voice sounding like my dead grandmother echoed in my skull.

The John looked at me like he was trying to decide if I were salvation or the welcome wagon from Dante’s Inferno. OK, bad cop-bad cop-good cop. I guess I knew which one I was supposed to be.

Why don’t you talk to the good Detective PeeWee” – he half laughed and half snarled when he said it – “and maybe we can all get this cleared up. Oh, and you should know, we found these on the coffee table.” He threw a box at me with a picture on it. A picture I knew well. An old fashioned colorized painting of a redhead (weren’t they always?) with a 1940’s look to her hair and a friendly, freckled smile. She wore a wide brimmed hat and a blue and white checkered shirt. It was “Little” Debbie McKee. She liked the name about as much as I like being called Pee Wee. The last time I saw her freckled face was way before she was anybody in the major rackets.  She was digging her pink heels into my lower back and her complexion was about as red as it was in that picture of her on the box. I used to love it when she started breathing like that.

Maybe they really were all rebels at heart. Every “brand” of the Gluten Cartel, and it was only the gluten cartel because except for those crazy Indians that ran the Land O Lakes thing, the Lipid pushers didn’t do it, they loved to put their little logos and pictures on the Product. And let me tell you, as a courier for those idiots, it didn’t make things any easier for me. Amanda Baird who we all called Bimbo because she liked to disarm people by acting as if she were just another dumb blonde, she had her pictures of gold, pink and blue award winning ribbons on her stuff, while Aunt Jemima, the crazy bitch, put her actual picture on the boxes of her pancakes and waffles and even the flour. I heard someone asked her why she did it and she supposedly replied “It’s just my way o’ sayin’ Fuck You to da man. Plus I proud of my product.” Then she shot him in the chest and laughed her ass off watching him die, like he was there as part of her entertainment. I had no doubt the story was at least partially true.

“Little Debbies, huh”, I said to the man, shaking my head somberly from side to side. From what I heard, she wasn’t so little any more. That’s what happens when a big time dealer becomes a big time user.

I heard Jones whisper a long “Sheeeet” underneath her breath. “You got family?”, I asked the man, who was now sobbing like a six year old who’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar and was about to git a whoopin’. He nodded and gave me a quiet “No”.

“OK, look”, I said, “we’re just here to get the truth. I want to help you but to do that you gotta help me. Now I know these other officers have questioned you, but I need to question you too because I am the detective that’s handling this case. This is my partner Tamika Jones.” Jones gave him a slight nod. Cold hearted and carpet munching that she was, she couldn’t help looking incredibly pretty and it was obvious that our boy had a thing for that. Deep in my mind, I shook my imaginary head. I felt bad for him, Gluten junkie though he was. I glanced at Jones and she took the hint, sitting at the edge of the bed and offering his leg a light, brief touch that said ‘I care’. I walked over to Ross and we played a game of eye chicken for about a minute. Without turning away, he smiled slightly and nodded. “Peewee, huh?”
“I’m assuming you read him his rights, right?”.
“Wow, you’re good. Been watching a lot of TV, Detective?”
“Just doing my job, Detective”. I saw him smile for a second. He tried to hide it by looking down. I’d won.
“Well just for shits and giggles, Detective, why don’t you fill me in. That way we can both move on to other places where we’d both rather be.”
“Single, Caucasian, probably grew up around money, no ID. Nothing on the prints yet but we’ll let you know. Also pulling the footage from all cams in a two mile spread.”
Wow, this dumb Yeast Whore must be important. What wasn’t he telling me?
“Tell me something I don’t know. Yet.”, I asked him.
Ross shrugged. “We’ll be sure to keep you first on the list when we get the results. According to her – uhm – companion here, he picked her up outside of a shoe store on Kiest and Illinois, then took her back here for the festivities.

Jones butted in. She liked Ross about as much as I did.
“They partied a bit, smoked some dope and by the looks of that box and those crumbs on the table decided to do a bit of the old Muffin Mulching before getting down.” She picked up a crumb and held it to his nose. “Fucking cinnamon”, she spat. “I hate cinnamon.”
“Good to know”, I said.
My conversation with Ray was like a feral cat with a ball of yarn. You can guess which one I was.
“Why the hell did you have to tell Ross who I was?”, I asked her.
“He’s an asshole but he’s also a good detective. I heard he was digging into your shit so I gave him a call. I explained that I didn’t want to lose an asset but I had you down there to get to the bottom of this for me and if he was going to make himself expendable, too bad so sad but he wasn’t getting in the way. There’s more than just me that’s wanting to know about this deal. I think the big thing that’s pissing him off the most is that I brought you in instead of having him do the job.”
“Yeah, why did you do that?”
“He’s a rental. You I own. Plus, I trust you baby. And I thought it would be fun. Like old times, you know?”
Great. Nothing like hearing an ugly truth that you spent part of every day forgetting. Mymind went in two or three different directions trying to defend my autonomy. All ended up in dead ends. I could call them cul de sacs but the only sacs that had been culled were mine.
“So you find out anything? I can fly down there and give you a soft, steady hand if you think that’ll help.”
“You can keep your hands to yourself”, I replied. Even though Ray scared the crap out of me the only way to handle her was to get back in her face when she tried to bully you. It was a weird, silent cult of fake respect.

“This last one they found. I don’t know but I feel like there’s something there. She was all torn up in that Oak Cliff motel room, a lot like the others. But she had a John and he was alive. Sitting in a pile of crumbs and an empty box of Little Debbies.”
“Motherfuckin’ cow. I’ll kill the bitch.”
Ooops. I shouldn’t have mentioned that part. The two hated each other. I was under no illusions that the reason had to do with me.
“Yeah Ray but here’s the thing. With the others, we weren’t sure. Any evidence we found, it was all your shit or pointing to you. That, I assume, is why you got me in on this to begin with.”
“That and the fact that I really missed hearing your voice.” She said the words like an insincere drunk in a confessional. I kept moving. Going there could be bad for my health. Both of our health.
“Whoever it is, they’re not just targeting Sara Lee. It’s going in to everything.”
“Get to the bottom of it. Soon.” The ice was back and I almost felt relieved. My left hand cramped as I hung up the phone.

Chapter Five

I got the call a few days later when I was leaving for the station. I recognized the trademark heavy breathing of a Gluten Guzzler when I picked up the phone.
“I hear you’re looking to find out the real facts about what happened to that hooker in Oak Cliff a few days ago.”

“Go on”, I said. The odor of fresh bullshit wafted gently under my nostrils.

One of the biggest groups hit by Pro 2, one of the groups that took it most personally, were the Italians. Yeah I know, I sound like a Trumper, but each stereotype has a kernel of truth. I’m know exception so yes, I’ll point fingers. Horizontally and vertically. Well, as far as the Italians went, eating was part of their culture, part of their identity. So when a gluten addict asked you to meet them for dinner, you knew it was going to be at one of the underground pizza parlors or spaghetti joints that “didn’t exist” over by the Trinity river front east of downtown.

Most of the Italian restaurants in Dallas went underground pretty fast after P2, which to their credit and fortune meant that they saved a lot of the tools and the personnel before the patrols had a chance to pick them up. Places like the Olive Garden and Spaghetti Warehouse went tits up. They were big, lumbering giants and they didn’t stand a chance. A few were fast but the Pasta Police were faster. Not so much with the little guys. You know, Joe’s Pizza and Mama’s Home Made Pasta. Those guys were nimble and they’d gone underground before the Pigs had a chance to hit their shops. Most sold other drugs or had resident independents with other things to sell. I guess vice follows vice. Mine is not to reason why.

He looked at me with trademark Wheatbelly wince and telltale swollen gut that bespoke years of abuse. His face had more sun damage than an old leather saddle. His eyes were wide set, his nose cherry Santa Claus red and he breathed like he’s been taking in two packs of reds since he was 16. Bobby D’Ario looked to be somewhere between 50 and 70, but with all the damage from the drugs over who knows how long, all you knew was that he was hooked and wasn’t trying to hide it.

Bobby was big, thick, maybe six four or five. He wore a tie dye shirt that looked like Jerry Garcia had personally vomited a bowl of acid laced lasagna on the thing 40 years back. Bobby was not a subtle man. Good. It would save me time.

He smiled amiably, like a happy cartoon polar bear who was big but gentle and a little bit stupid. I reached out and accepted his giant ham hand. It was baked, just like the rest of him. The skin on his palms was like baked filo dough, crackly looking and smooth. I kept my cool and barely smiled back at the big oaf as I felt the missing thumb and forefinger. Surprise! Gotcha! Fucking asshole. Time to watch my back. The polar bear had teeth.

We walked into the scrap metal yard’s office at the ede of Cedars West where we were greeted by a guy who was even taller and wider than Big Bobby. He ran us both through a machine and directed us with a nod of the head in the direction of a brown metal door that said ‘Exit’. I pushed the bar handle and went down a set of stairs with Bobby behind me, breathing like he’d just started going to work on a masturbation session that wasn’t going to end well for anyone within ten feet. Ahead, I heard voices and the clattering of washed dishes in a kitchen that wasn’t there. I sensed Bobby getting excited behind me. The smells of home-made sauce and fresh bread came from behind the door at the bottom stairwell. Bobby reached over me a knocked in a complicated pattern I wouldn’t have believed him capable of. I guess where there’s gluten, there’s a way.

The dining room in the place wasn’t fancy by any stretch. There were tables and booths that were very average looking. It could have been any restaurant, except behind the counter you could see the rows of stainless steel ovens that were meant to do just one thing.

The place wasn’t crowded, especially for a Friday night, and I wondered how they managed to stay in business. Still, we sat in a booth near the corner and after jockeying positions, I won and ended up in the seat facing the door. Bobby looked disappointed for a second and I saw a glimpse of angry savagery cross his face. It disappeared seconds later when a handsome brunette in her early thirties approached our booth with a friendly looking smile and a red plastic basket looking thing filled with fresh bread. She smiled at Bobby in a way that I recognized well. Bobby was more than a regular here, I could see. He was family.

“Hi Big Guy”, she said, slightly tilting her head and smiling like she knew a happy secret. “Who’s your little friend?”
“This here’s Paulie. Detective Paul Wise from the Dallas P.D.”
She gave him a look like he was full of it. Then she looked at me and I smiled. I waited for a reaction but I didn’t get one. She just laughed and gave Bobby a peck on the cheek. In a combined Southern Belle – Siciliab accent which sounded incredibly strange, she grinned at me and said, “Good evening Detective, What can I get for you? Lemme suggest the stuffed shells. The pasta and the ricotta are all home made.”
They must have been. Ray would burn the place down if she knew they weren’t using her shit. Hell, maybe they were. Unless of course they were grinding their own flour. I made a mental note not to mention the place to her.
“That sounds great”, I said. “And by what name should I call this very beautiful woman?”
She looked me in the eyes without blinking and I saw her pupils dilate. “My name’s Giulia with a ‘G’ but everyone calls me Jewels.You can call me anything you want.” She giggled. I glanced over at Bobby and he didn’t look amused.
“And what about you, big guy?”, she asked him, sensing he wasn’t his usual happy self. She put a hand on each of his shoulders and gave him a warm, familiar tug. “The usual?”
“Now and later”, he said while grinning at her, much of it for my benefit. OK, Bobby sensitive. No flirting with waitress. Note made.

Business waited until the end of the meal. Bobby took it upon himself to educate me in the purveyance and preparation of each of the elements in our dinners. As expected, “the usual” consisted of two appetizers and eternal non-stop runbys of fresh baked breads, two entrees and of course a platter full of home made pastries for desert. Like I said, the Italians took their gluten seriously.