We will be publishing LENNY - the latest book from noir-legend B.R. Stateham on Wednesday 18th March. You can read an exclusive extended extract of this awesome new book here.
LENNY by B.R. Stateham
The Ballard County jail side door banged open with a metallic crash, spearing the pre-dawn darkness with a shaft of white. The blistering slash of eye-watering light rudely split the hot Texas air of a coming dawn. For a second or two nothing happened. The seconds ticked by in silence. At this time of the morning, just before dawn, the air was absolutely still and the serenity of the night was total.
A shadow partially blocked the shaft of light, just as a heavy canvas tote bag came sailing out of the open door. The large bag slapped down onto the ground in a puff of dry, hot dust. Soon after that a man appeared in the doorway. An average height man dressed in old blue jeans, a dark cotton long-sleeve shirt underneath a threadbare blue jean jacket, wearing boots favored by lumberjacks.
Some unseen force behind the shaggy-haired, unshaven creature put a hand in the middle of the man’s back and shoved him violently out the door. The derelict went flying into the night, stumbling, with one leg buckling underneath him, but just catching himself before sprawling face first into the dirt beside his canvas bag. Behind him two large-framed, muscular county sheriff officers stepped out of the door, lined up shoulder to shoulder and glared at the smaller man.
“Lenny, I’m not playing with you here. The sheriff’s fed up with your horseshit. Get your ass arrested again and the he’ll throw the book at you. They’ll haul your ass off to the state pen. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep your nose clean and stay off the goddamn booze for a while!”
With those deeply Socratic words of profound wisdom the two monsters for sheriff deputies turned around and slipped back through the jail’s side door, banging it closed rudely and using keys to lock it behind them.
Standing up, turning to face the low slung, flat-roofed cement dungeon of the county jail, Lenny eyed the place with a smoldering look of animosity for a few heartbeats, and then turned and reached for his canvas bag lying in the dirt. Bag in hand, he stood up and looked to his right. A ribbon of already hot cement, the county highway, disappeared off toward Amarillo seventy miles away. A straight shot through miles and miles of endless mesquite bush and roaming bands of jack rabbits and coyotes, with barely a house around and not a tree in sight. Rubbing a hand across his lips and jaw, feeling the weeks’ worth of hard stubble on his face, he slowly turned and faced his left.
A mile away he saw the twinkling lights of his hometown. Ballard, Texas. The county seat. Population just a notch over five thousand. Mostly old cowboys and ranch owners with a large portion of oil field trash thrown in for good measure. And Mexicans, along with a smattering of Native Americans, Comanche with a few Apache in the mix. A third of Ballard were old family Mexicans. Been here as long as there’s been a county seat. As long as there had been Texas. Before the first cowboy stumbled into town half dead of thirst and filled with half a dozen arrows from a Comanche war band.
His great, great grandfather, that cowboy. Leto Leonidas. More Greek immigrant than a real cowboy. But a cowboy he was when he fell off his horse, half dead, in the middle of Ballard’s only dirt street.
Gazing along the almost empty highway toward town he swept a hand over his lips and jawline a second time and squinted his eyes. Coming down the road in the growing twilight was a pickup truck. A Dodge pickup truck. As it approached he thought about throwing up a thumb and hitching a ride. Maybe it was headed for Amarillo. Maybe it was time to take the sheriff’s advice. Maybe it was time to leave Ballard for good.
Funny how shit happens. How half-baked plans get tossed out the window.
The brown Dodge slowed and swerved toward him. For a moment he was bathed in low beams before the pickup slid to a stop a couple of feet in front of him. Standing there, Lenny watched the passenger side front door window slide down. In the semi-light he had to step closer to see who was sitting behind the wheel.
A voice he recognized. Even after all these long years away.
“Hello, Miguel. Good to see you.”
Miguel Luiz Sanchez. His mother’s sister’s oldest son. Same age as he was. The oldest of four boys and three sisters. But that was twenty years ago. He had no idea who was alive today. Who was dead.
“Come on,” Miguel grunted, waving a hand for Lenny to open the door and get in.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“Been in town for two weeks, cuz. Getting drunk and getting into fights. The whole family knows you’re back in town. Time to clean up. Dry out. Time to go home.”
Time to go home. Like a hammer blow right between his eyes. Time to go home. Home? Here in Ballard? After all these years? After what happened in the past? For a few seconds Lenny stared into the darkness of the pickup’s interior and at the dark silhouette of his cousin sitting behind the wheel. He hesitated. Turning his head, he looked toward the town, its lights beginning to wink out because sunrise was starting to kiss the flat roofs of main street. Go home? He turned and looked off toward Amarillo. Saw nothing but mesquite bush and sage and flat grassland stretching out as far as the eye could see. But his soul’s eyes saw cheap, smoke-filled, drug-infested bars lining both sides of the streets deep in the heart of Hong Kong where no round-eyed foreigner should have been. He saw, and felt, the hot deluges of monsoons in Thailand and Vietnam. The gooey, slimy mud. The bodies floating down rivers overflowing from their banks. He saw shivering children standing in terror as bombs and grenades exploded around them.
He saw tall Muslim women, dressed in heavy black garb. Their entire bodies hidden from view. Only a slash across their faces opened so their eyes could stare out at the world. Eyes filled with silent pain. He remembered looking into the faces of hundreds of Afghani mountain tribesmen and realized he was seeing Death staring back at him. Dark complexioned, sun weathered, hard men dressed in traditional Afghani attire, cradling AK-47’s lovingly in their arm as they sat on their haunches around small campfires knowing they were going to die violently sooner or later, as had all their relatives in the past, and quietly accepting their fate.
He’d seen the world. Been just about everywhere. Did a lot of terrible things. And maybe, if he was lucky, a couple of good deeds along the way. But he never saw a place he could say was home. His new home.
There was only one place he remembered using the word home. And that was right here. Here in Ballard. A sour grin played across his thin lips, lasting for only a second or two. The Prodigal Son has returned. He could see his father’s face glaring at him, that hard look of unrelenting brown eyes staring at him. His lips set in a permanent frown. The muscles in his jaw extended and hard as stone. Standing in front of him, towering over him, arms folded across his chest. As silent as a Sphinx. And as unforgiving.
Well, Dad. I’m back. Whether you want me or not. Hope the fires in Hell are a lot hotter as you stew in your bile and hate for me. I know you never missed me once I left. But that’s okay. To tell you the truth, once I got on that bus twenty years ago I never thought about you, either.
Lenny’s head turned and looked at the dark figure of his cousin sitting in the truck as he tossed the heavy canvas bag into the pickup’s bed and reached for the door handle.
“Sure, why not. Let’s go home.”
Miguel pulled up close to the curb and came to a slow halt. And there it was. The Big House. The house he grew up in. The house filled with so many memories. It sat majestically on the corner of 5th and Aims. The first house on the street. And the biggest. The brick Victorian architectural behemoth dominated the street with its three stories and its large three-floored turret facing the 5th Street side of the house. Surrounded by lilac bushes and flower gardens, shaded by old pecan and mimosa trees, The Big House was aptly named. Every other house on Aims didn’t compare in size and grandeur to the Leonidas home.
“Here we are,” Miguel whispered softly, gripping the truck’s steering wheel and leaning forward to stare out through the windshield.
“Yep,” Lenny agreed. “Here we are.”
The deeply suntanned but handsome Miguel threw eyes toward his cousin and smiled.
“Doesn’t sound like you’re so happy, Lenny. You may not be happy. I know you left in a cloud of anger. I know your Dad threw you out. But I gotta tell you, I know Grandma Evita will be happy to see you.”
“Really? Evita’s happy to see me? After all these years? After all the things she said just before Dad threw me out?”
Miguel frowned, shook his head from side to side, glancing at the house and then back to his cousin. When he did speak, there was a softness in his voice, a note of regret which took Lenny by surprise.
“Lenny. Twenty years ago, your father said some terrible things to you. Treated you like shit for most of your life. He had a way of molding people’s opinions. Making his opinion their opinion. That’s what made him a successful lawyer. But his death, as sudden and unexpected as it was, shook us up badly. Shook up the entire town. It certainly shook up Evita. It opened her eyes. Your dad’s passing opened all our eyes. Time went by and we began hearing the rumors about your dad. About some of the terrible things he did to other people. To others in the family. About other things as well.
“Evita heard all the stories. She heard all the rumors. She changed, Lenny. And for the last ten years she’s been holding on, hoping you could come back to Ballard. Hoping to maybe make amends for all those things she said to you. There’s a lot of guilt in her, cousin. A lot of guilt.”
Lenny’s eyes swept back to The Big House. A frown swept across his face as he stared.
“You said she was holding on, Miguel. Why is she holding on? Is she sick?”
“Cancer,” Miguel said, hesitating. “Or we think it’s cancer. She won’t say anything to us. And the doctors won’t say a thing either. But she’s not herself. Her health has been declining in the last five years. Hardly eats. Just sits at the kitchen table smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. And staring. Staring out the kitchen window and saying very little. To be honest with you, cuz, we don’t know what to do. Kinda hoping you showing up might bring her out of her shell.”
His eyes never wavered. Staring at the dark-red brick home with the dark black windows, hundreds of them reflecting the morning sunshine back onto the street, seemed almost surreal to him. The dark windows were new. Twenty years ago, the windows were white trimmed. The originals. More than a hundred years old. But someone had installed modern day, double-panned thermal windows.
But it wasn’t the only change which caught his eye. The home’s large front door was different. Twenty years ago, it was a heavy oak door with a small window in it. Natural oak and as solid as iron in its sturdiness. Today, the front door was blue. A deep navy blue. With a large window running halfway down the middle of the door. Ending right at the very upper edge of the heavy brass door knob.
Grandma Evita’s favorite color. She finally got her way.
He opened the pickup’s door and slid out, turning to nod to his cousin.
“Want me to come in with you?”
“No. Not now. Maybe tomorrow night, cousin. If all goes well today, maybe we can have a small family gathering here tomorrow night. Drink some booze. Eat some food. Gossip some. Get to know everyone again.”
Miguel smiled, nodded.
“Sounds swell. Give me a call tomorrow. If it’s okay, I’ll call everyone up and invite them over.”
Lenny nodded, smiled, closed the pickup’s door with one hand and reached for his canvas bag with the other before turning to stare at the house again. He heard the pickup behind him slide away from the curb and turn onto 5th Street. For a few moments he stood on the edge of the lawn staring at the house, gripping his canvas bag, his mind filled with all kinds of strange thoughts. What was he going to say to his grandmother? What was she going to say to him? How would he feel stepping into that house again? Would all the pain, all the recriminations his dad threw at him come roaring back into his memory? Would he feel the anger, the disappointments, the hatred again? Hear the terrible shouting. Remember all the terrible fights his dad and his mom had over him.
Maybe it would be better to walk away. To leave. Maybe it would be better not to open old wounds again. Maybe . . . maybe . . . maybe.
He was here. He was home. There was nowhere else to go. His life had come around full circle. He was back in Ballard. And, by god, he was staying in Ballard whether anyone else wanted him here or not. Gripping the bag’s strap firmly, he put one foot forward, and then another, and marched across the lawn, up the wide sidewalk in front of the four steps leading up to the porch, eventually stopping in front of the big blue door.
Reaching for the brass door knob he wondered if the door would be unlocked. As it seemed to always be when he was growing up in the house.
Been a Leonidas family member in Ballard since before the Civil War. Most of the Leonidas gene pool produced good people. Hard working, respectful, blue-collar people who paid their taxes, went to church on Sunday, and rooted for the Longhorns of the University of Texas when it came to college football. But every family has their weird second cousin or crazy uncle lurking in the background. The black sheep in the family who, for any number of reasons, cannot get along with most of the family. Nor with normalcy in general.
He was that one. The crazy Leonidas uncle who couldn’t help himself in stirring up chaos around him and who, in the end, was cast out of the family like some leprous monk being banished from his monastery, shunned by all of humanity. For the first seventeen years of life he was a holy terror for the family. Fights, getting kicked out of school. Scrapes with the law. Staying out all night and stumbling home drunk. The works. Finally, when his eighteenth birthday rolled around, his birthday celebration was anything but celebratory.
His father disowned him. Told him to get out of the house and never come back. Wasn’t even allowed to pack a suitcase. Left with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. For the next twenty years he never saw his home town. Never talked to any of his family. Got on a bus for Amarillo and left at three in the morning. Never uttered a word for the 70-mile trip to the West Texas city. Got off the bus, strolled two blocks south of the bus station and walked into an Army recruiting office.
For the next twenty years his family became the U.S. Army. Fought in the country’s many wars from the Middle East all the way to the Caribbean. The Army taught him well. He learned how to efficiently kill people. Became a Ranger. Learned how to jump out of airplanes. Learned how to put a .308 caliber bullet into the brain pan of a poor bastard 700 yards away and not bat an eyelid in the process.
Left the Army with the rank of sergeant-major and realized he had nowhere to go. So he got on a bus in Amarillo and rode the 70 miles back to Ballard. He didn’t know what, or who, he would face when he arrived. Had no idea if any of the family would even recognize him. No one did. No one did because no one in his immediate family remained, except for his eighty-seven-year-old grandmother. She was the only living Leonidas in Ballard. Everybody else was either dead or moved away. Far away from Ballard and never coming back.
Of course, he had cousins. First cousins. Second cousins. Both white and Mexican. It was said, with some veracity, he was related to about half the people in town. The Monroe’s. The Winston’s. The Garcia’s. The Moreno’s. The Sanchez’s. The Gladstone’s. But only one direct family member. An old lady living in a big house by herself on 5th and Aims Streets. His father’s mother.
The door was unlocked.
Stepping into the house he closed the door behind him and sat the canvas bag down to one side of the entrance, noting the little changes in furniture and carpets, then stared straight ahead. The living room was huge, filled with heavy furniture, all polished oak and glistening in the sunlight streaming through the windows. Adjacent to the living room was the dining room with its gigantic round oak table. Another large room. Filled with furniture and knick-knacks from another era.
The interior of the house was quiet. Quiet, except for the loud, measured tick-tick-tick of a huge grandfather’s clock knocking off each passing second. The thing sat in the corner of the dining room, almost touched the room’s ceiling. A piece of furniture that had always been a part of his life.
But he wasn’t interested in the grandfather clock. His eyes were riveted to the woman standing in the doorway leading from the dining room into the kitchen. A gray-haired, heavy-framed woman in her eighties, both hands bracing herself upright on the aluminum walker in front of her. Round-faced with big brown eyes and a frown twisting the corner of her lips down with a severity he was all too familiar with.
Dad’s mother. Once, when she was barely sixteen, just before grandfather fell in love with her and swept her off her feet and married her, her name had been Evita Moreno. She soon became the family’s anchor. The final arbitrator in any family squabble. Her word was law. Even Father, as strict and ungiving as he could be, never protested any of her decisions. Never dared to raise a protest.
Now she was the only Leonidas left in the house. This huge, rambling, empty house.
He stood in the entrance and stared. For some reason her image began to blur. He felt tears building up and threatening to spill down his cheeks. Emotions, long forgotten, swept back and forth inside him like tsunami waves. Powerful emotions that internally threatened to shatter, like the glass of a mirror, into a thousand pieces his resolve of enforced detachment.
“Come here, boy. Let me get a better look at you. My eyes are not as good as they used to be.”
There was the faint lilt of her Spanish background in her voice. A soft, velvety sound which, when it had to, could ring with the hardness of hammered steel which allowed for no questioning and no hesitation in the person it was aimed at. He couldn’t help himself. A smile spread across his lips as he moved through the living room and dining room toward her. All these years. All these years being ostracized from the family. It was her he missed the most.
He came to a halt just in front of the heavy woman. He was a foot taller than her. But, standing with the help of the walker, she looked as powerful as ever. Age had taken nothing from her in that department. Yet there wasn’t hardness in her eyes as she looked up into his face. There was something else. Something soft and tender. Love. Loneliness. Years of sadness, all buried deep in her eyes. Using the back of one hand she ran it across the stubble of his cheek, and then touched the sandy curls of his hair.
“Well, here you are. Been waiting for you, boy. Waiting all these years. Now, before you say anything else. I need something from you. And don’t give me any lip about it.”
“What do you want me to do, Grammy?”
A word he hadn’t said in over twenty years. But it rolled off his tongue smooth and natural. Felt good.
“Give me a hug, son. Bend down here and throw those long arms around me. I haven’t been hugged by you for a long time.”
He complied with her wishes. Stepped closer, bent down a little, and wrapped arms around her and squeezed gently. That did it. That was the trigger. Water filled his eyes and streamed down his cheeks in rivers of tears. He caught his breath, found it hard to breathe, and stepped back quickly, wiping his cheeks in the process.
“Come into the kitchen and sit down at the table with me,” she said softly, turning her walker around with some difficulty and hobbling back into the kitchen. “But first, boy, grab a couple of beers from out of the fridge and bring them over.”
“Beer?” he said, still wiping tears from his face as he turned toward the fridge to comply with her wishes. “Since when did you start drinking beer? I thought you despised alcohol in all its forms.”
“Since Friday, when Miguel called and said he was going to bring you over here. Thought maybe a man who’d been in the Army for as long as you might need something to drink. So I decided to do a little drinking myself. Just to, you know, keep you company.”
He pulled out two-long necked Sam Adams’ Boston lagers. Closing the fridge door he turned toward the cabinets set above the kitchen counter and started to grab a couple of glasses.
“Forget that, boy. That just means more dishes to wash. Just bring ’em over here and let’s drink and talk. I want to hear what you’ve done with your life. I want to hear everything.”
He sat a bottle down in front of her and then pulled back a heavy kitchen chair and sat down across from her. Taking a long pull of the dark liquid he felt the coldness slide down his throat and work its way into his gut. The beer was icy. The taste just the way he liked it.
“What do you want me to say? I joined the Army. Served my time. Now I’m retired. Footloose and fancy free. Thought I’d come back to see how the hometown has changed. See a few of the cousins. And then move on, I guess.”
Evita took a sip of her beer, her dark eyes glued on Lenny. Setting the bottle down on the table in front her she shook her head gently as she wiped her lips with a napkin.
“Son, you could never lie to me. When you were a boy, every time you tried to pull the wool over my eyes, I saw right through you. Why are you trying to fool me again?”
“Grammy, I just came by to say hello. That’s all. I’m not staying in Ballard. I’m moving on.”
Blunt. Like a fist up the side of his face. Like a rock thrown through a plate glass window.
“Why, what? Why am I not staying in Ballard? You know the answer to that. There’s nothing here to keep me. Except you. I thought maybe I might be able to convince you to sell this rambling old place and come with me.”
“Go with you? At my age? Where do you plan to drag an old woman off to? Why would I want to leave Ballard?’
“I thought maybe we could move to Dallas. Or San Antonio. Or maybe down to El Paso. Wherever you wanted to go. It’d be a fresh start. A fresh start for both of us. We’d leave this town. Put all the bad memories and all the pain behind us. Watch it disappear in a rear-view mirror. Haven’t you thought about doing that, Grammy? After all these years. Just packing up and leaving?”
Evita sat across from at the table, both hands gripping the long neck, her eyes finally rolling off his face and staring down at the tall brown bottle of beer. For a few seconds she remained silent. But only for a few seconds. Taking a deep breath she lifted one shoulder in a half shrug and looked at him again.
“When your father threw you out of the house, I told him I wanted out. I was leaving. But he convinced me to stay. Pleaded for me to stay. Said he knew he made a mistake when he banished you. But you were gone, and no one knew where you ran off to. It was a couple of years later we found out you were in the Army.
“Then, ten years ago, when your father died, I thought about leaving. Thought about just saying goodbye to everyone. Even talked to a couple of realtors about the house. But, in the end, I decided to stay. To stay and wait.”
“Wait?” he repeated, frowning. “Wait for what?”
“You, boy. You. I knew you’d be coming back. Coming back here. Back to this house. There was no way you were going to stay away forever. Knowing that, I waited. Waited, hoping I’d live long enough to see you again. Live long enough to see you sitting across me like you are now, so I could say it. Say what’s been eating at me for more than twenty years.”
Something was squeezing his windpipe again. An invisible force which was making it hard for him to breathe. But he said nothing. Just kept his eyes on the gray-haired woman across the table and waited.
Evita cleared her throat. Turned to look out a kitchen window for a second or two. Cleared her throat again. Eyes tearing up.
“Lenny, I’ve been wanting to tell you for a long, long time now. I uh . . . I’m sorry. I’m sorry I treated you the way I did. I’m uh . . . sorry . . . so so sorry, I didn’t take your side more often defending you from your father. He was a cruel man, your father. A very cruel man. What he did to your mother, what he did to you, I’m ashamed of myself for standing back and saying nothing. I know this is too little, and probably too late. But I’m hoping you’ll understand. Understand and decide to stick around a while. It would be nice to have another voice in this old house. Another Leonidas.”
He found his vision blurry again. Found it hard to breathe. But saying nothing, he stretched out and took one of her small hands into his. Held it for a long time. Finally, after his vision cleared, he smiled at Evita as he lifted the long neck to his lips.
“My bedroom still upstairs? Still with that four-post monstrosity for a bed?”
The gray-haired old woman smiled, wiping a tear away with a napkin, and nodded.
“Still there. Freshly made and waiting for you. I thought you might want to rest some after spending all that time on a hard bunk in jail. Nobody can sleep on those damn things.”
LENNY will be published on Wednesday 18th March.